Eric Severn



I left the meeting, realized I forgot my notes. You didn't want to forget your notes. They could be used against you, read in all the wrong ways: aggressive, full of barbed assumptions, animal lust, violence. Further, there could be grammatical issues. So I turned right back around and stalked across the parking lot, sweating under an anemic sun. Oaks and elms burned with premature color. Everything blushed. I blushed. People passing passed judgments. The clock on the tower pronounced a judgment. Students in the quad prepared judgments. I hustled past the library, but run I did not. I wasn't an idiot. I played it cool while in my mind I played out worst case scenarios: My notes circulated freely and without discretion —faculty, staff, custodians, the provost, the president, students, parents of students, the president's parents, my own parents. They read my notes. They snickered indictments, called me depraved, a scattershot of emails. Carbon copied. Blind carbon copied: Did you hear about Slomski. Sick Slomski. I was a new hire, adjunct, English, bottom of the food-chain and a week before fall quarter I'd be snuffed out like so much vermin before I could even start. I'd seen it happen before. 
     I went for the elevator. Silver doors yawned opened, regurgitated a lone secretary. We brushed shoulders as I rushed in, the silver walls a mirrored maw. Inside she had left her smell: perfume. sex. I thought of the secretary's underthings, their smells. I want. Gimme gimme. I felt like a misogynist. I had the nose of a misogynist that smelled misogynist things and turned them into misogynist thoughts. I slapped myself on the wrist. Said, "Bad. Bad bad bad." There were too many mirrors in this maw. My pulse was an epileptic. On the third floor, the elevator came to halt. In walked The Chair of the English Department. He knew my name but I forgot his.
     "Slomski," he said. 
     "Here," I said. It felt like rollcall. He looked at me with suspicion. The word "suspicion" slithered around in my mouth. The doors closed. The Chair put his hands on his hips, the power pose. I put mine behind my back. 
     "Meetings," he said. "Task forces and committees." He stared ahead at the chrome doors, his reflection a thing to behold—a gray-haired relic in tweeds rocking onto his heels, taking it philosophically. "We've got sub-committees to take notes on our committees. Task forces tasked with checking the sub-committee's notes."
"Well?" I searched for enthusiasm, stood up straight. "Accountability!"
     "If I'm not in a meeting you better believe I'm scheduling a meeting. I'm double-booked. Triple-booked. Quadruple-booked. A stupid fishy, hooked." He appraised me, appraised his own hands, spoke melancholically: "Slomski," he said, "what are you doing here?"
     My faced reddened. Ruefully, I revealed: "I forgot something." 
     "What'd you forget, Slomski?"
     He was all whispers. 
     Maybe I should have lied. Said, scarf or gloves, a pack of cigarettes, anything, a condom for later. Heteronormative latex. But what then? The elevator kept going up and up. Numbers bloomed with light. 10th, 20th, 100th, the 200th floor. "My notes," I finally said, looking down at my shoes. "I forgot my notes." 
     His tongue clucked. My own tongue clucked. We clucked in unison. 
     "Bad Slomski," he said. "You don't want people reading your notes. What if they thought…"
     "I know I know I know." 
     Elevator numbers ticked by. We had reached the 300th floor. "Jesus," I said. "How many floors are in this place?" 
     The Chair shot me a dirty look.
     "Sorry. Was that aggressive? I didn't mean it." 
     Well, he directed me to lost and found. "In The Dean's Office. 676th floor." The doors opened. The Chair snapped imperative advice: "Burn your notes after every meeting. Burn everything." He laughed. Vanished. 
     I found The Dean in his office, standing at the big windows, forehead pressed against the glass, taking in the view. Ten phones lined his desk. All unplugged. He must have heard me enter. "Perspective is the 676th floor of the administrative building," he said. "You can't learn this shit from books. They don't teach this shit."  
     He invited me to stand next to him. A topography of smudges, forehead oils, and fingerprints clouded the view. He was freshly shaven, smelled of deodorant, a splash of secretary perfume. Down on the quad I could barely make out students assembling on the lawn. 
     "They're protesting," he said.
     I felt a lump in my throat.
     Through the binoculars he handed me I saw a student holding a sign. It read #protesting. Another's read #potentialoversights.  
     It was almost five. Chopin's Nocturnes played from a small stereo on The Dean's desk. He looked at me. "Go home, Slomski. It's your weekend now. Try to forget about all this, if you can."

Home was a rambler at the edge of town, pushed up against a field of wheat. I sat outside, watched the sunset stain the hills red, and guzzled beer. We all make mistakes, I told myself. No reason for one to beat one's self up. One already has too much to do. But that night, right before I fell asleep, my phone rang. 
     A voice on the other end said my name. It was The Chair. 
     I flipped on a light, rubbed my eyes. "Here," I said. 
     "I've been drinking a little," The Chair said.
     "That's okay," I said. "It's Friday night. We all have to unwind."
     "Listen," The Chair said. "Word's out that you lost your notes. It's all over twitter and Instagram. Facebook, tumblr, Pinterest. Etsy."
     I took a deep breath. "Do the students know?"
     I could hear the chair take a drink. It sounded like whiskey. Sometimes you can tell. He hung up. 
     In my closet I kept a golf club in case something like this ever happened, to blow off steam. Well, it'd finally happened. I went outside and blasted twenty-some-odd balls into a field, working up a good sweat. Thwack, thwack, thwack into a shell of darkness. No way would the students let this go. I pawed at the earth, dug in, snorted, and tried to find some peace, some stillness, but it didn't work. Instead, I remembered Ajax throwing himself onto his sword, swallowed by his own disgrace. I thought of Hester Prynne, all those Puritans with "slut" dripping from their lips. I thought of a whole history of Christian self-flagellation. I went thwack, thwack, thwack into darkness. There's a certain logic to shame. Why fight it? What the hell? I took the club to a couple windows in the garage door. The shattered glass rained all around me. Then I went for my own car, hacking at the windows until all I had was a roof.

Next day I donned my workout clothes and drove to town. I saw The Dean in the parking lot of Gold's Gym. He had been playing raquet ball with The Secretary. They walked up to my car, a handsome couple, bronzed by the sun, an Apollonian slick of sweat.
     "Hey," The Secretary said. "Didn't I see you get into the elevator yesterday while I was coming out."
     I nodded.
     "Wow," she said, "what a coincidence."
     The Dean leaned in on one of my broken windows. "It's pure chaos right now about your notes. Really a chaotic situation we've got on our hands. The students have demands. Parents have demands. People have theories. Bold ones. Incoherent ones. Logical ones. Psychological ones. Illogical ones. Economic ones. I got a letter this morning demanding that I turn over your notes to the public." The Dean laughed and whistled. "As if I have your notes." He took a racquet ball from his pocket and slammed it on the cement, watched it bounce high in the air and then caught it. "But even if I did, there'd be serious ethical questions. Would I turn them over? Would I keep them? It's a question of perspective, really. The whole situation is. Dot your T's. Cross your I's. Or whatever. Hear what I'm saying." 
     Behind him The Secretary was dancing in the sun. She wore a tennis skirt, white.
     A man with huge muscles walked out of the gym and flipped me off. "Nice windows, asshole," he yelled.
     The Dean reached into the car and flicked a piece of broken glass from my dashboard. "Never mind that man," he said. "Go in there and work out. You'll need to prepare. You'll feel better."   

The night before classes I stayed up late, ironing my shirt. I had been working out for three days straight, in preparation. I grunted out sit-ups and pushups. I twisted, Russian style. I hefted barbells, curled dumbbells. I squatted, lunged, pulled, did leg raises until my rectus abdominis went numb. In preparation I perfected my military press, practically injected peanut butter protein shakes. I hydrated. I gyrated. Examined my reflection in every mirror I could find. "Who's the man?" I said to my reflection. "I'm the man," I grunted back. When I wasn't working out, I prepared in other important ways. I updated my CV. Graduate school—check. I checked my references. Double checked my references. My diversity statement needed a little work so I did the work. I used words like multicultural and intertextual. Words like perspective and critical engagement and privilege. I signed up for equality newsletters. Posted and shared articles on my Facebook page about all manner of social and cultural injustices. Patriarchy, racism, Marxism, Colonialism, post-Colonialism, epistemic violence, appropriation, misappropriation. I did more crunches. I wanted rock hard abs. Get me rock hard. I crunched, yelled "Imperialism!" Make me sweat. Work me. Convert me. I had certain religious feeling. To prepare, I purified myself and lived like an ascetic. I did more pushups. One. Two. Three. Four. I called my mom. "Mom," I said, "have I been good?" She was hysterical on the other end of the line. "I'm so proud of you," she cried. I hung up, ran in place. One. Two. Three. Four.   
     After I ironed my shirt, I sorted through the recycling, keeping the cans from the bottles from the milk cartons from the cardboard. In the bathroom mirror I found my reflection, made some faces, flexed. I called my exes. One of them said I should be ashamed. I told her I was. She said she was so proud of me. I called another ex. She giggled. "Slomski! You're a teacher! They're going to let you teach?! This. Is. Rich!" I hung up. Called another. The new boyfriend answered. We talked about the big game. Felt shame for liking football. I hung up, scribbled "Felt Shame" all over my CV. I erased it. Scribbled, "Purity." I laughed. Snorted. Erased.  
     I ironed my shirt again, slipped it on, a crisp shell over my shoulders, and then sat in the corner of the kitchen and waited for The Dean to call. 
     He called.
     "Slomski," The Dean said.
     "Here," I said.
     In the background I could hear the razor echo of the racquetball court. The Dean was slamming balls with The Secretary again. He was a little winded.
     "What's your status?" He sounded like a drill sergeant. A thick, staccato voice mouthing at me. 
     "I'm ready, sir," I said. I stood up, saluted my reflection in the window. Beneath my shirt, I had thighs of marbled muscle and leg hair.
     "Then get your ass out there!" he yelled.
     "Sir yes, yes sir!" I yelled back.
     In the background I heard The Secretary: "Jesus loves you."
     The Dean was screaming. The secretary was screaming. I was screaming. "Go go go."
     I slammed the phone down and then ran outside into a darkness so colossal and deep at first I couldn't see my students. But then I found them. Hundreds of them. Thousands of them. They stood in rank, waving sheets of blank paper big as billowing, white flags. My notes. They had found my notes. I got on my knees, heaped fistfuls of dirt into my mouth while my students talked among themselves, formed committees and subcommittees. Between mouthfuls of dirt I said, "Talk among yourselves." They formed task forces. I gurgled out words mixed with dirt: "Talk among yourselves," I mumbled. They headed commissions and agencies. My mouth urged them: "Talk talk talk." They elected a speaker. "Among yourselves," I gasped. I shoveled more dirt. I waited. Shoveled. Waited. "Yourselves," I said. "Yourselves."