She walks up to the smokers lounge by the Krieger Hall dumpster and tells a story. “Look,” she says. “A boy and a girl fall in love. They love eachother. I mean they really really love each other, in that deep down way.” The boy loves her snarling cynicism, her curly red hair, the way she fit an entire McDonald’s hamburger in her mouth, on a bet, stuffing it in there with those little fingers. And of course the girl loves him back, loves his smarts, his wizzardry with words, loves his blue work shirts and the whiskers he missed. “La la la,” she says, waving her Marlboro clipped hand in spirals, to get to the point, and out of the cold.
I have seen her before. But I keep quiet, like a good grad student. Give nothing away, except disgust. Mike can’t help himself. “Then what?” he asks.
“Then something happens,” she says, prepared. They start asking questions. In the process they discover they were wrong. They actually didn’t know each other. “They hadn’t known each other,” she says. “So all that sweetness and light? Straight to hell.”
“That’s it?” asks Mike.
“That’s it,” she says. “That’s the whole story.”
She is looking squarely at me. I hold her gaze, a game of chicken, and right there, right at that moment, we make the agreement. The beginning, the middle, the end. That’s all you need to know. Everything else is unnecessary.
“So what’s the moral?” Mike asks. “Let me guess, don’t fall in love? “Not at all,” she says. “The moral is don’t ask stupid questions.”
Many of the intricate particulars do not bear mentioning. The hand knit purple wool scarf and matching hat, for instance, or her Marlboro-adorned hand spinning little circles for storytelling emphasis only clutter the truth:
She admits herself to the smoking lounge by the Krieger Hall dumpster cove, in said wool, her freckled, papery skin in winter I judge as older than the common co-ed. Wiser. Post-undergrad. She lights up.
Familiarity--where had I seen her?
In Krieger Auditorium, when, in my bi-quarterly moment of TA glory, students crowd throng to me to collect Dr. Bergman’s Environmental Science 202 exams which I had sleepily graded, to whom do I hand over a ninety-four percent, the second highest in the seminar of a hundred and eight? Bespectacled Mary Wins, that’s who. There she is. Mary Wins. A complete sentence. Again, my thesis: that’s all you need. As I head to the emporium under a thick gray Bloomington sky I’m already confused by a shifty hope that I would see heragain, smoking by the dumpster. I confess. Hoping, I hypothesized: must there be something cosmologically harmonious to a name that makes sense, a name that fits? She is gifted, chosen, destined by christening to a particular triumph. She’s a
thing that is what it is. Call me crazy, but grow up in Indiana, stay in-state for college, get married, get divorced, wind up a thirty-two year-old sixth-year Environmental Science PhD candidate and that’s what you think.
And who do I discover at the dumpster lounge?
Mike, of course. English Department Mike, Comrade Mike, perched on an upturned pickle bucket, legs crossed. Cloaked in his nylon winter jacket with fur lining, unzipped, dangling a half burned-cigarette over his vinyl hi-tops, chin poised unto the heavens, Mike bespeaks the defiant spirit of the condemned.
Once we could smoke in the office. Then they came for us. We were banished to the courtyard and granted a single canister ashtray, which filled up daily with butts like a like an infestation of worker ants, multiplying in the sand and then crawling over the edges. And when the precinct mandate forced us twenty-five feet away from a public edifice, we took to the ghetto, the cove by the ivory dumpster with only a rock salt bucket in which to discard our butts. Countless brothers and sisters have disappeared without a trace, but those who have survived the pogrom to be faithful to our addiction no matter the stigma or sin tax, these are my people.
“They’re tying to get rid of me,” Mike says. “You might never see me
I nod along. The first time he sang the lament of the graduate student was six years ago, the first time we met, and I knew we would get along famously.
What I know of Mike: he’s a medieval scholar. Like me he burns a sneering dislike for his committee--”the puppet show,” he says. He watches every game of the Detroit Lions, those that are televised, including pre-season. He can distinguish between three, four, and five-toed tracks. Downwind he smells like
deodorant soap, especially freshly showered, hair wet, smoking in sub-freezing Bloomington first thing at the office. He shamelessly bums, and I shamelessly oblige. Not only because addiction needs company, as the soft-hearted would say. Over a six-year span I must have spent more time with this man than any other unrelated human, in cigarette-smoking intervals. His name, in full, is Mike.
What he knows of me: I live alone. I own a Toyota. I believe student insurance is a rip off. I’ve lived in Indiana my entire life. I have an ex. I am an ex. I too am living the graduate student life on borrowed time. Dead, I want to be burned up. Whether or not he knew my name I cannot be sure. Yet enjoying our breathers in the shadow of the ivory dumpster, there were no closer allies in the most last-stand of foxholes. For example, Mike tees one up for me:
“That can’t be good for the environment.” Across the street the Upham Honors House has been tee-peed, an impressive job. Today, however, deluded by the hope of meeting Mary Wins, I do not launch a tirade against idiot tee-peeing punks; no enumeration of the toxins in processed paper, bleach, armed with six years of environmental science doctoral candidacy. No opportunity cost of clean up, the heartbreaking truth of pollution. Today, I admire the work. The juvenile job stands for all that was crass, yes, but these perpetrators were sincere. A hurricane of toilet paper. As a blotch on the Georgian Architectured landscape of higher learning, the veil of toilet paper glimmering softly in the winter wind approaches beauty.
Right then, right at that moment, amid my thoughtcrime, as though forcing fate’s hand, up she walks.
Mary Wins produces an American Spirit, and I play it close to the parka, as though I’d forgotten our silent agreement, as though I hadn’t handed over her
exam eleven minutes before, as though I wasn’t hoping to god she’d ask for a light. She fishes a golden bic from her pocket, fires up, and for a moment we avert each other’s glances until someone speaks.
“If you ask me, the toilet paper is an improvement.” The remark is all mine, unearthed from the depths. “They had it coming,” says Mary Wins playing along.
I wallow in irony, going so far as to open up some decades-old leftovers, once all the rage: by themselves the chemicals in the toilet paper might benignly wash away, but if they happened to come in contact with other Dupont- concocted household irritants like ammonia or Formica, they morph into a microscopic amalgam potentially toxic to both humans and domesticated animals.
“What’s the difference?” she volleys. “Humans, domesticated animals?” She is a quick little pistol, eyeing me through designer specs, a hunter skulking behind a tree. She proceeds to commandeer the seven-minute fix, reducing the human race to a stimulus-response specie of creatures. She wears her hair short, tucked behind her hears, simple, and her mouth seems to hold a constant displeased grin, as though she’s searching for someone in a crowd. “We’re just a bag of chemicals reacting,” she says.
Mike sticks around for another. Mike never sticks around for another.
Against Mary Wins, what chance has addiction?
“Everything comes down to chemistry,” she says. “Little particles looking for what they don’t have, right?”
I must have said the very same thing. As an ABD grad student I live it, anyway.
“And when they find it, presto!” She claps her mittened hands together softly, a wool-silenced thump, then blew smoke into the sky.
Before we proceed, we shall address a delicate issue: Mary Wins is a pupil in my class.
Technically I’m not the teacher. Dr. Bergman is the teacher. I’m the teacher’s assistant.
Mary Wins is a Non-Traditional Student. Retired stockbrokers, career jumpers, divorced housewives, divorced househusbands --anyone not 18-22--fall under the Non-Traditional Student heading, a title invented to differentiate off- limits from fair game. For example, on her first visit to office hours, which notarized the aforementioned agreement, and which turned into a forty-three minute let’s drink coffee and smoke cigarettes affair, I discover she is within the acceptable range of age. I open with a discussion of shoes--you can never find the right shoes in Indiana--boots are clunky, ridiculous in front of a chalkboard; loafers get soaked and pruny. She responds forthcomingly. A psych major, she hails from Toronto, where eyeglasses are free, and where her father works for the Jewish mafia. Following her bat mitzvah she had her reaction formation (she found a machine gun in her garage), “And la-la-la,” she says, in the classic pose-- arm upright, flicking. Later, after college, she somehow ended up working in Vancouver for a child labor PAC, then, for a stint, in Hong Kong. She wound up in Indianapolis with an older sister, and now needs a psychology degree so she can go home again to start the doctoral process. I take it all in, savoring every
year hers approached mine, formulating complicated equations in which my age and hers worked out to be the equivalent, or acceptably approximate. “I don’t miss it though,” she says, which I take to mean she’s settling down, settling in. “You get to thirty,” she says. “You get tired of helping people and not getting paid.”
The sun has gone down, the campus snowy and glowing orange. As long as we’re divulging dark secrets, I admit mine: I grew up in
“How did you do it?” she asks. “Once I’m finished, I’m long gone.”
I don’t answer. Gone is a word that inspires fear. Finished, terror. As I light up, I conclude that Mary Wins is no undergrad floozy. She carries no purse, no backpack, no catalogue-ordered satchel, in which there are no unread and unreturned library books, no unused palm pilot, no I-Pad. Just the blue notebook in her hand, a box of cigarettes and a golden bic lighter tucked stylishly in her pocket, and steady green eyes. Under the category of Non Traditional Student, all bets are off.
Mike and I have publicly shared scalding contempt for rat-bastard, advantage-pressing professors who take up with students. Grow up in Indiana, that’s what you think. For example, Dr. Bergman marrying the undergrad work- study student at South Dakota State never sat well with me. Then again, neither did spending ten years in Brookings he’ll never get back.
On Saturday, drawn to the inevitable, our cappuccino cups cooled and thrown away, Mary Wins says, “Let’s drink wine,” and then, without giving me much time to think: “Or are you against that?”
In a split second I added everything up and concluded that the reason the issue of teachers sleeping with students never sat right with me was that I wasn’t the one getting laid.
“I’m definitely pro-wine,” I say.
We now proceed. We proceed with aforementioned pino to Mary Wins’ apartment, a loft third floor Victorian converted funeral home. We proceed up the stairwell, the melted slush glistening by streetlight. We proceed through a four-room tour of the apartment, as I search for clues that will betray her, perhaps country music, prescription medication, or non-dairy creamer. I find none.
Meanwhile I present measured details myself: I call myself a PhD candidate; I am in favor of reality television and meat as a food, and against the war, and camping. When her cel phone chimes--Wager’s Cry of the Valkyries-- Mary Wins rolls her eyes, a bit overdone, as though on the subject of phone calls, she was on my side, whatever it was. “My sister,” she says, and for the next five minutes I catch a parade of “he did?’s” and “no way’s” and “what a prick’s,” and take my sweet old time uncorking the wine, examining the bouquet, studying the legs, and trying to decide whether Wagner was an acceptable ringtone.
“She’s going through a divorce,” she says, clapping the phone. “Wanna hear a story?”
“The one about everything going to hell?” I feel betrayed. I remember the story like a promise.
“Yes!” says Mary Wins, remembering. Her excitement pulls me in:
“Been there,” I say.
I was once married. But I fell in the bushes and got divorced. I had no clue what I was getting into, is the short of it. When does a man know what he’s getting into? The long of it is Shelia Everhart Wasserstrom. I couldn’t tell you if or when we said ‘hello.’ A college buddy, the kind of person your supposed to forget when you graduate and sober up. Instead, all earnest and chipper, I married her, even though her smoking turned out to be just a show, as well as the entire twenty-two member drug store franchise owning Wasserstroms. The merger meant getting sucked into the fold. They forced me into the business, butI held out, a vague fantasy of graduate school the best sounding excuse. I’ll admit I didn’t sound so convincing, slouching at their cherry hewn dining room table at the Wasserstroms 25th anniversary gala at their new 3250 square-foot millennial McMansion in the up-water suburbs, itching for a cigarette, drunk on wine from the cellar, and spewing about studying green plants. Of course to come were divorce proceedings, high level talks with very learned professionals and surprise and rehearsed advice sessions from all involved. Hell practice. But in her second to last wish of me Sheila Everhart Wasserstrom asked that I get off my smart ass and bring down a few folding chairs--the gala was getting nutty on the patio--one of which caught somewhere between stair five and six, sending me like I needed the attention tumbling into the raised mulch beds and arbor vitae bushes.
Shocked, mortified, embarrassed, ashamed, select any, she didn’t even get off her ass to help, and so, yes, I went ahead and had that cigarette.
“As your shrink, I’d say you were merely formulating your dissertation,” she says, sharply. “Sprawl is evil.”
She’s right. As my shrink, she knows I have the enlightened perspective of all divorced men: that every woman on the planet, every fish in the sea, is potentially my next ex-wife.
The confession calms the waters. We jump ahead two spaces into friendship. Biding time, we sit on her pullout futon, watching a Law and Order rerun. Perched between us on her futon is the dwindling pack of cigarettes, little stepping-stones toward the inevitable, until, right before the verdict, we run out. Mary Wins suggests we share. I am powerless in her green eyes. And in that last exchange before the TV was off and we fell to her room, my helplessness spread-- I knew I was fated to arrive here. From that moment by the dumpster, yes, but why stop there? All of history falls in line, and I imagine a time past further still, before graduate school, before Sheila Everhart Wasserstrom, before universities or cigarettes, some epoch when the molten earth cooled. In the dark, it seems quite possible that all of civilization and her Norelco smokeless ashtray grewforth from some pre-Cambrian plot of malevolent design. We’re out of cigarettes, but that crisis would have to wait.
I should mention my dissertation. The title, “Runoff Effect Models of Hydric Levels in Crosby Hill Vernal Pools” has undergone several revisions, but
as of late I’ve been compelled by the imagery. I warned you about details. As a younger man I envisioned the undertaking as a manifesto, a wedge against the empire of sprawl the Indiana earth has become. Once a wetland is destroyed after all, it’s never coming back. Ever.
But what was once a mandate has atrophied over years of methodology into a murkily conceived fiasco involving univalent compound levels in reconstructed swamp bogs. It had grown, spread, and mutated into an ornery thing in itself that had assumed its own identity. I had given it the name Jerry. For two years I’d been driving three hours upstate to a site in Kenawsha, Indiana, a man-made wetland called Crosby Woods created by a developer to replace the one it destroyed building a home parade, knowing full well what I’d find: nitrates, which turn baby’s skin blue. I’d written only scraps here and there, based on my profound thesis, that artificial wetlands are well, artificial. Leaving town, heading out past the stadium into the southern Indiana countryside I’d feel a momentary fear that the gates of the city would close up behind me. Sometimes heading up 37 I’d imagine filling up the tank, and keep on driving.
Meanwhile, I got hooked, addicted to graduate-studenthood: Wake up without alarm. Have a cigarette. The first cigarette’s the best. Read. Gradeexams. Attend a two hour curriculum development committee meeting, led by Steve Levecki, candidate extraordinaire, who cuts the meeting short to attend this month’s job talk. Avoid job talk. Meet Mike for cigarette in the dumpster cove for a quiet moment of reflection. The post-committee-meeting cigarette’s the best.
Openly mock Steve Levecki, who makes a show of landing a tenure track gig at some community college in the Quad Cities. Then head to class, where I preach the evils of suburban new-builds to a packed house of good corn-fed Hoosiers,
who will graduate and move to suburban new-builds. Spotlit, I can almost picture myself as a professor, a man who has earned a PhD, a man who submitted to the torture of a dissertation, a man who accepted an ten year sentence at Davenport Tech, who ascended to the nirvana of the large research oriented state university, who earned a bevy of grad student worker bees. In other words, I can picture myself as a man I’ll never be. The after-class cigarette’s the best.
Mary Wins rolls over, a maneuver Sheila Everhart Wasserstrom never performed. Spanning her back in the candlelight I see a topographical map of the Crosby Hills wetland. I can see the entire Indiana water table, and then the whole Great Lakes basin, but I see the system as it was eons ago, before developmentate it up and spat it out, water in its unadulterated state, always moving, falling from the sky and washing through the earth and back again, purifying and purifying.
Regarding the middle of the story there is little that needs mentioning. First, I must recuse myself of the telling, for everything that takes place for the next ten weeks would defy empirical explanation. Gas station convenience marts, such as the Speedway en route to Crosby Woods, become palaces of enchantment. Armed with an orange beverage, I survey the world that the bulldozed Indiana countryside is becoming, and conclude that there is hope for the world. I actually believe my windowless office I share with between six and ten graduate students inspires esteem, going so far in one twisted reverie to think that the university is indeed a benevolent body, and I its agent of good. Driving
back from Kenawsha, everyone is cheering for me, Dr. Bergman, Mike, the undergrads, my committee, the townies, Jerry, and Mary Wins, they’re all cheering. I stay awake into the night, and for no good reason churn out four entire pages of dissertation, then burn a tangy cigarette, thinking only of her green eyes. I use the right buzzwords. I toe the line. I work within the system. An entire chapter falls out in two days, and Dr. Bergman is so impressed he asks me to pick him and his wife up from the airport after their weekend in Vegas. I can see a shaft of light. Later, watching a tempest of smoke curling in the lamplight, I imagine quitting, considering for a delusional moment second-hand smoketheory and life without cigarettes.
Time blurs, bookmarked by built-in arrangements in the form of Environmental Science 202, neither Mary Wins nor I requiring any further agreements from the other. And so we of course go bowling, a sublime experience. We of course watch Kubric’s 2001 at the independent theater, and we walk out into the night uplifted by the after-movie cigarette and the warm air suggesting spring. Mary Wins of course accompanies me on a trip to Kenawsha, where we scoff at the rising vinyl-sided paradise. When we forage into thewoods, I intrepidly commando a rusty wire fence, my Merrill hikers mattering imminently. Together, in a tender episode, we cull samples. At best, taken separately, the details are meaningless; at worst, the way she squats to get a better look at a banana slug lends to obfuscating sentimentality. In any case, the sum total of the past forty-two days seems encapsulated in the little beaker of khaki colored water she holds, and I am reduced to the following betrayal:
“Why aren’t you with someone?” I ask.
“I am with someone,” she says. “Stupid question.”
As we drive back into town, she rolls down the window, the spring air filling the cab with the scent of rain-drenched Indiana countryside. A faded red sun appears on the horizon, and for once in my life I believe a semester isn’t long enough.
I make a breakthrough discovery one Saturday morning: above her ankle, reaching back toward her calf, Mary Wins bears a faded tattoo.
“Don’t ask,” she says. “It was a long time ago.”
It appears to be a Chinese character, in blue, or what once was blue, and has shifted into a blur so that from a distance it looks like she’s about to be bitten by a large horsefly.
“I’m sure it looked nice.”
“Let me put it this way. I wasn’t exactly married. I was tattooed.” She hesitates, forced into a shrug. Irony can provide only so much cover. She climbs out of her fold out futon and pulls on her flannel p.j.s
“Same thing,” I said, consoling. “Except one is less painful. What’s it supposed to mean?”
“Marriage or the tattoo?” “Either one.”
“Honestly?” she returns with a clean ashtray. “I forget. The tattoo artist told me ‘wisdom.’ Or was it ‘patience’? Or ‘courage.’ Or some nonsense. It means whatever I want it to mean, I guess.”
“What’s it mean now?”
At the dumpster lounge Mike remains sullen, yet unoriginal: “It’s the myth of constructive engagement--we graduate students aren’t benefited by the university. We’re exploited by it.”
The despair is music. Spring is arriving, the daylight longer, everywhere warm April gusts seem to uplift spirits, even of the doomed. I bask in the foul smell of rot momentarily when the wind dies down. Mike seethes the anxiety under the thaw: dwindling enrollments, fewer classes, unemployment.
“Totally,” I volley. “We’re the low-wage underclass, with no protection againstcontingency.”
“This is probably the last time you’ll see me,” says Mike.
I muster a martyrly nod: you and me both, brother. I don’t dare speak of my dark secret: Jerry the Dissertation has expanded to over sixty pages, if I tweaked the margins just so. If nothing else, I’ve reached a milestone that planted the abiding certainty that I was closer to the end than I was the beginning. At what moment must the end ineluctably follow? That’s all I want to know.
For Mary Wins and I, I cannot say. From a thrift store she has found a set of orange curtains in batik, and I assist with the interior renovations. Looming is spring break, a nine day cloud in which she plans to visit Queens College in Ontario, then spend what’s left helping her divorced sister move out of the house in which she lived for six years of marital bliss. I make a connection: “She was married as long as me and Jerry.”
“But she’s always hated it,” she says. “And that house.”
“Even during the sweetness and light? I ask. I wind up the old aluminum Venetian blinds and stuff the package in the trash. Her apartment is awash is gray morningdaylight.
“It’s just so permanent,” she says. “Have you ever thought to get out of Indiana?”
“I don’t know,” I say. I have at three weeks of classes left in the bank. “Have you ever thought to stay in one place?”
And just like that, without any prompting on my part, we’ve wandered into the dark forest of questions. We’re fishing for clarification, and I hold out, hoping not to foray any further than demonstrating domestic skill. The conversation seems to have solidified her plans of grad school and a vague dream of shrinkdom, at the school in her homeland north of the border. She’s making up for lost time. Or spent time. Her declaration forces me to contemplate the end of the world, the semester summit of my doctoral committee. I try to open the window, but it’s been painted shut.
“I need to ace all my undergrad courses,” says Mary Wins, as though she isn’t one.
She beats me to the punch: “You’d have to be an idiot not to, right Professor Sam?”
Professor Sam. This semester I’ve done the most realistic teaching of my life. My seminar has become a symphony of undergraduate environmental scientific academe. I bury myself in preparation, skipping even the allotted dumpster cigarette to cover all potential questions, cross-referencing footnotes and addendums, annotations and abstracts. I hit pitches of fervent contempt, roll my eyes at Bergman’s gloss of primary productivity, sneer at the patchouli-
scented posers in the front row, and like rock star, I look into the throng, but see no faces.
“I’m not really a professor, I say. And then, incredibly, out of my mouth slips a “yet.”
“I’m not really a psychologist--yet.”
I buy a carton and get down to business. Optimally one needs seventeen years of control in order to prove my thesis, but since my funding runs out at the semester, three weeks will do. In the prediction chapter I cast a wide net, hinting vaguely at anoxification, suffocating fish, but conclude obediently with the principle that all hypothesis are subject to disproof. Then, without observable cause or effect, I take a stroll, winding across campus, looping around Mary Wins’ empty apartment.
I grew up in Jefferson Indiana, which centuries ago was established as an actual town in itself, but has since become engulfed in pavement. At the end of my street there was a vast open field that stretched all the way to the woods on the horizon. In the middle of the open field stood a majestic tree. It was sycamore, I would later learn, and someone had let it go, allowing the giant to dominate the prairie like a temple honoring Mother Earth herself. The tree was always there, when you left in the morning and came home at night. Years later, of course, the tree would disappear, as would the open field, and the woods, and the horizon. In the final analysis of Jerry, once my last stand against the destruction, I recall the tree standing against the blue sky, and the memory feels like a cipher upon which every elaborate hypothesis precariously stands, a pin
that that once pulled collapses the entire dissertation into nonsense: The leveling is unavoidable. The asphalt revolution is the only course of things. To prevent the inevitable you might as well try to stop wind from blowing.
The chocolate-brown headband and lavender candle Mary Wins has bought on Queen Street, subjects of decided interest. I notice her hair--she is letting it go, pulled back it inches toward her shoulders. She speaks excitedly about her adventures in Toronto, eating Vietnamese fruit and giving money to heroin addicts, buying used jeans. She transfers her enthusiasm to scorn for Hoosierland.
“You have to drive to Chicago to find anything interesting,” she says.
I’m suspicious of the barb--or is it her certainty? In any case, in the silence I’m paralyzed by a sense of the impending, which lingers, like an algae bloom.
She feels it too, and reveals a contemplative side. “You know, when I was eighteen, I said I wanted to trek the Himalayas, drive across Canada, and skydive.”
“What was the best?”
“I haven’t skydived yet.”
“You can’t do everything,” I say. “Boy was I wrong,” she says. “What?’
“You are SO from Indiana.”
She holds her smile--her ironic gaze I saw first by the dumpster--but now it looks different, shrouded in gray, like a solution has dawned on her. I let the
silence stand. Outside the last shard of daylight fades away. That’s when I feel it again. The eventuation sure as gravity was fast approaching. I was running out of time.
“I should get to work,” I say. “Jerry has deadlines.”
Thankfully it’s a school night, which means I’ll head home--walking to class together in the morning being a crime far worse than anything hereunto considered. She escorts me down the stairs. The glow on the horizon draws us out, and I feel saved, eager.
“Ever notice how non-committal cigarette packages are in the States?” They’re vague--’cigarette smoke can be harmful.’”
“They have come a long way,” I say. “In Canada, we’re blunt. Here.”
She hands me a pack from her trip. She recites the warning as I read along, in big, black, and bold. “Smokers Die Young.’”
In the end, Mary Wins barricades herself from the world before finals, I after. Dr. Bergman hands down the manila folder stuffed with penciled ES 201 exams, which sits dormant on my desk for three days, ripening, while the phases of my demise align in an ineluctable sequence:
The final spell checking of the eleventh version of what my life amounts to, now entitled “An Evaluation of Hydric Organic Matter on Aerobic and Anaerobic Biodegradation of Nitric Contaminants.”
I leave Mary Wins’ final exam for last, a carrot. Her terminology is precise. Her statistical graphing stalwart, for an undergrad. Her essay on environmental disaster preparedness hits every bullet while I look for clues her composition might reveal, some deeper underlying message only I could decipher, but the writing is precise, unambiguous, and without feeling. Her script remains consistent and true, confident. The particular slant and wobble I conclude to be Canadian in nature. But for a mathematical error, she has aced her test, and my pen hovers over her ball-point-blue script, admiring, and a little jealous. For a document that will be forgotten to history, she has presented her work as a worthy endeavor. In her blue ink I can hear a voice that has accomplished what it set out to Indiana to do.
Jerry the Dissertation, on the other hand, is an eighty-six-page ode to pseudoskepticism, including the abstract, the table of contents, and the bibliography. The defense, a forty-three minute outline of wetlands statistical models both natural and artificial, one ecosystem we know, one we don’t, is open to the public but attended, intermittently, by the committee, the proxy for the Department Chair, the proxy for the Dean of Sciences, and the proxy for the Dean of Natural Resources. When Dr. Bergman, playing his part admirably, throws an occasional curveball, I attempt to conjure Mary Wins’ confidence, and after each committee member, including the interdisciplinary token, an adjunct from East Asian Languages, have politely delivered their lines, we all shake hands, like a closing. Then I’m told to step outside while the committee performs the customary sequestering. And that was it, over before it began.
I spend a few aimless moments rereading faded cartoons taped to Krieger Hall offices, then I’m drawn out to the dumpster cove, as though to fulfill my true
purpose. I know she awaits me there, and for a moment I think of Mike, and I long for a conversation that means nothing.
At the dumpster cove, the redbuds are in bloom. The campus is quiet, somnolent in the post keg party coma but for a plastic window fan humming in the honors house window. Mary Wins, foregoing upturned bucket seating, stands with one arm crossed, the other dangling a cigarette.
“Well?” she asks.
My hand reaches into my canvas satchel for a cigarette. There are none. I can feel the dumpster’s rusty emptiness, and a slight wave of panic reverberates through me. I know I have foreseen this moment, even in my dreams. Everything is over. Behind me looms a mountain of classwork, years spent gorging information and regurgitating it; and then the age of research, the maximum sentence of hard labor. There is Shiela Everhart Wasserstrom, an imagined manifesto, and an ageless ivory dumpster. There’s a giant sycamore, a faded tattoo, and Mary Wins’ green-eyed gaze. Add them all together and here I returned to a gigantic steel garbage bin. It is not triumph that wins out, but the relief someone will share with me a cigarette.
“Jerry’s dead,” I say. “I killed him.” I recall the formidable look of the document, smartly Kinkoed. I begin to regale her with the important details: the bar graph on methemoglobinemia was particularly colorful. And la-la-la. “It’s like a joke. Explaining it ruins it.”
She is unmoved. “Well?” she says again.
I tell her I’m in limbo. I will be given modifications, which I will obligingly make, and Jerry will become a piece of microfilm archived in the seventh floor library annex where the elevator doesn’t go, and later still I will be
given a purple gown and mortarboard, which I will obligingly wear, and then I will be given orders to stand and smile for pictures next to Steve Levecki, which I will obligingly obey.
“Well?” says Mary Wins, a third time. “Well what?” I say. “I give up.”
“I not asking about you. I want to know about me.”
My hand searches my satchel again, hoping. I am unprepared. “Share?” I
Her eyes, behind her shades, do not flinch.
I feel the urge to move, but I’m trapped in her gaze, as though there’s no place left to go, as though I’ve arrived in a place far far from home.
Steve Guinan’sscreenplay Perfect Season about the winningest team in pro football history, the Toledo Troopers, is in development. perfectseasonthemovie.com