Unfortunately, if he was fearfully functional on the battlefield, Batey was confidently inept at blackjack,
August 5, 2013 § Leave a comment
Though it was originally designed by Colonel Gerome Batey two years before the Civil War, Old Main was not built until nearly twenty years after Appomattox. Too drunk too often to pursue plans for a mansion before hostilities turned into combat, Batey’s campaigns with the Union army in Kentucky and Tennessee put him in close enough proximity to Southern spirits that he could endure the horrors of war for which he did not have the stomach sober. By the time the Confederates surrendered, his anxiety overtook his addiction and Batey found in riverboat gambling the perfect outlet for both. Unfortunately, if he was fearfully functional on the battlefield, Batey was confidently inept at blackjack, and likely would have lost most of his inherited fortune fair and square if he hadn’t instead begun passing out and got it stolen. He returned to Cincinnati with a liver near failure and a heart whose violent palpitations kept time with the explosions he claimed occasionally to still hear, taking refuge in his childhood home with his widowed mother and youngest sister. With the passing of their mother a few years later, though, so went his sister’s willingness to keep nursing family members. It’s uncertain whether her proposal to use half of their mother’s sizable will to have built for Batey the mansion he’d designed but never actually broke ground on was born of spite or kindness. In any event, Batey was not in any position — physically or mentally — to argue, and he was soon living in the house he never would’ve built on his own alongside a nurse whose name he could never quite remember.
July 31, 2013 § 2 Comments
Professor Max Stein’s exclamations were not out of character. For forty-eight years from his second-floor office of Old Main he had held court—no matter that for the last two decades, as the campus expanded and Old Main receded from centerpiece to neglected afterthought to begrudged capital liability, it was to a diminished jury. In the eyes of his colleagues over the years, because his rages, whether they were aimed at the Koreans or the Viet Cong, Woodstock or Wall Street, were merely rhetorical, they were ultimately as feeble as Stein was thin. (—Money where his mouth is? Are you kidding, Stein’d cause an inflation crisis if that were to happen!) Stein was not unaware of the sentiment and dissented in the only way he knew how. —We must never forget, he declared at the start of his Homiletics courses, and possibly to himself at the close of each day, —words matter, and they must be made right. He had expounded his theories of preaching in the small classrooms of Old Main, only occasionally venturing into the lecture halls of the Bieder Building and never at all those of Mingus. By the mid-1970s, as Mingus Hall grew in stature, sightings of Stein outside Old Main became rare. By the ’80s, his classes the only ones not yet relocated to the newer facilities, he was something of a legend. By the ’90s, now a retired professor emeritus, more sticking around than asked to stay, he was largely forgotten. Before being assigned his graduate assistant, R. had not given Stein much thought. A few peripheral sightings, entering and exiting Old Main; chance glimpses during chapel services and commencement, stealing in and out of the balcony; old photographs seen but seldom noticed, mostly historical memorabilia in the library of a campus bygone; and the occasional anecdote, whose details even when true were too sketchy to have much value as truth. That Stein was still supplied an assistant so long after his retirement began as an administrative oversight whose blame no one would claim, became a problem no one cared to fix, until it finally and formally was called “a token of appreciation.”
—The steeple—have you seen the plans?—it is engorged with hubris. Papal priapic envy. Where you and I are content to dangle as intended—unused, mostly unseen sacks, we—they want—not simply to be seen—but to be needed—for the pagan earth to groan like a whore—because it now needs what before it only wanted. This is consummation, my boy. Not redemption. This chapel they want to build, this blueprinted prick they’re now raising money for, it will be the end of us.
June 22, 2013 § Leave a comment
The path from the Bieder Building through the middle of campus eventually spread like shameless legs into two separate ones leading to the male and female dormitories on opposite sides of the hill. Men and women were allowed only in the common area of each other’s dorm, where they might watch television together or play ping pong, careful that their touches never turn into gropes or hints into suggestions. A temptation kept at bay, they were taught, is one with clearly defined boundaries. In the close confines of a Christian college campus, though, where the divide between sexual and spiritual desire is only knicker-thin, boundaries are not enough. As with any border, these are permeable and inevitably pricked. The dichotomy was as striking as it was hopeful: between dormitories constructed to stare out toward one another and inhabitants convicted to gaze navally within. Not unlike Ramsey’s lunchtime vantage, their views of both were broken by the untidiness of something preexisting—something more original even than the desire for those things a body most wants and a soul is said to need. For where the two-legged paths that led to the dorms met and took their leave of another stood the only building on campus older than the school, Old Main.
—Pay attention, boy. A cock. They mean to turn us into a cock!
June 13, 2013 § Leave a comment
The campus was largely empty this time of year. The new term’s prospective students had by now already toured and declared their destinations. Most summer intensive courses, ambitiously designed to cram a semester into ten days, but whose professors ran out of lecture material in six, were complete. On a summer day one might encounter the odd exchange student who had arrived too early, the administrative staff member who arrived each day all year, or perhaps a couple of librarians one could rarely find when needed. The seminary grounds were not large, only about fifty acres, and whatever activity remained there was confined to the two largest of its five buildings.
The main hub of the undergraduate school, Mingus Hall was by far the largest and liveliest. The subject of a new fundraising campaign every four or so years, Mingus Hall had steadily become an architectural landmark of Cincinnati. From its original 1970s utilitarian, two-floor brick design, with just enough space to accommodate a gymnasium, twenty or so classrooms, and offices for faculty and administration, it was by the time R. finished his graduate studies, seven levels of steel whose shadow over the campus was of sturdier stuff than metaphor, with a full-service cafeteria whose culinary reputation was such that students had to call ahead for reservations.
The site of the graduate school and library, the Bieder Building was the second-oldest on campus, and seemed to serve spatially as a perpendicular contrast to the excesses of Mingus Hall. Built in the 1950s, its exterior did not as easily permit embellishment and had over the years only been lightly touched by repairs. As these things go, though, the interior — some would, the very soul — of the Bieder Building had changed significantly. Cincinnati Seminary was not innocent of the tumult of the late-1960s, and suffered its most significant scandal around this time when a graduate student submitted a Master’s thesis arguing that Werner Bieder, the building’s principal donor and namesake, gave sanctuary to a S.S. officer who in 1945 fled to America using the stolen identity of an American G.I. he very likely had personally executed. Outrage and protest followed, beginning with the initial demand that the building’s name be changed to the Bäumer Building — in recognition that Cincinnati’s German population would express appreciation for the reference to All Quiet on the Western Front by canceling a planned counter-protest — and culminating in a failed petition that called for the burning of all books and periodicals Bieder had given the library in his will. Failed by its escalating demands, the protesters were dealt another blow when the graduate student who had written the thesis, when faced with the findings of a private investigator contracted by the Bieder estate, admitted he could not in good Christian conscience say that none of his work was done under the influence of LSD. Not wishing to alienate the Bieder estate right as they were starting to offer undergraduate studies and in need of a new building on campus, the trustees decided the most responsible thing to do in the face of the scandal, the protests, and the investigation was to hire an interior decorator to modernize the inside.
June 10, 2013 § Leave a comment
The septic smells of mid-summer at Cincinnati Seminary: where cirrus smoke puffed from the water treatment plant upwind mingled with the indigestive burps of the Victorian-era plumbing below: whose high hillside vantage over the city had no effect on the humidity that hung in the air like sodden laundry on a line: which had become, after four years of fees spent and three more under scholarship pursuing degrees of Divinity, home. Lexington had become for R. a memory misshapen as much by recurrence as by avoidance. Lounging on the untended bluff behind the library, where the hillside that rolled downward elsewhere had eroded into a cliff, these repetitions and evasions were indistinguishable. They were, what’s more, as routine as his lunchtime.
Most days, when weather allowed, R. came here, his cafeteria purchase brown-bagged and eaten in self-imposed exile. He was, though, by no means in seclusion. The narrow strip of sittable land faced mostly shrubs, between whose thicketed green and thorny brown one could manage glimpses, if not a view, of the modest downtown. Over time, drivers angling steeply up or down the road between him and the library noted R.’s ritual with all the attention most might pay a flag. The most invisible things of life are the ones seen daily.
April 17, 2013 § Leave a comment
R. never corrected any of them about the name. As was customary, especially in small churches like this, he had been asked by the board, probably Phil Elkin, if he was married. (“Two for the price of one,” was the cynical joke inside seminaries and requirement outside them.)
—Young, handsome man like yourself, you have to have a young lady on your arm, right?
—I suppose you’d say . . . it’s complicated.
—Oh, it always is, son, somebody said, to mostly faked laughs.
—Sure. Yeah, I know that. Boy, do I ever. I guess the short answer is, No, I’m not married.
—Don’t stop there on account of us. We got time for the long answer, too.
—Oh, yeah, sure. It’s just that, well, we grew up together. And, I suppose you’d say . . . time’s got a way of sedimenting . . .
—My gramma, bless her soul . . .
—Somebody’d need to bless that old coot’s soul, Wallace. The laughter shook the table like a small tremor, scattering further the words R. was looking for.
—No, but seriously, my gramma told me that when I was baby and I was crying, Katey Mae, who she also babysat, why she’d put her finger on my lips, like so, Wallace Jenner demonstrated, and why I’d stop crying then and there.
—And she still does that today, don’t she? The table shook again.
—Thirty years of marriage gives a man lots to cry ’bout, so what can I say, it’s good she’s around.
—Die Wunde schliesst der Speer nur, der sie schlug.
—Beg your pardon?
—Only the spear that struck it can cure the wound. Heard it in an opera once, and never forgot it.
—We don’t get too many operas down here. That’s not gonna be a problem, is it?
—Oh, no, of course . . .
—So what’s your complicated lady’s name, Reverend?
—not. Huh? Oh, it’s Mar . . . R. suddenly felt self-conscious about his sweaty forehead and dizzied by the peculiarly sweet smell of the room. In order to buy him some time, he faked a cough, which was followed by a real one, and then another. Concerned that they thought he was choking, he sputtered mid-cough, —Mary-Ann Porter.
—Miriam Porter, you say? Why, now that’s a pretty name, isn’t it?
—You okay, Reverend?
For her part, Mary-Ann took the misunderstanding in stride. From, —Why would you not correct them? she quickly transitioned to general acceptance, —Well, you certainly can’t correct them now, can you? and even quicker to enthusiastic embrace, —I like this new name of mine. This sort of progression typified much of what endeared her to R., as well as what set her at such a great distance. She regularly opened herself—to new experiences, yes, but more importantly to their descriptions, on the pages she wrote and from the lips she spoke—to the point of creating a gulf between her form, which always seemed to be kept waiting, tapping its fingers on the dining room table like an inconvenienced shadow, and her substance, always somehow late to the party, drinks and entree served before the first guest has even been good evening’d. The yawning expanse that divided Mary-Ann from Miriam, though, was neither formless nor empty. R. in fact, felt he had many times over suffered its teeth while in search for its tongue. —Her water never formed to mind or voice, he quoted to himself often when he puzzled over her correspondence, —whose mimic motion made constant cry, caused constantly a cry.
December 23, 2012 § Leave a comment
With each return he discovered something newly lost. At first it was just simple recognition: what was once the fecund emptiness of a field had become the prolific squalor of a parking lot; subdivisions divided even and ever more; white flight neighborhoods now underfunded and Section 8; the metastasizing of a city into a metropolitan area Then, memory: whether it was a right or left off the highway exit, which highway exit it was, or when his tax dollars at work had moved the exit to the other side of the highway. Then, emotional attachment: from hatred of things no more or still the same, to resignation that some things change and others never at all, to apathy that they ever were at all. Then, awareness: pickle preserved and fed to the earth, sustenance for those before and after, but now not for now, he became not unlike his old Kentucky home, a corpse, welcomed and observed, forgotten, and all the while unknowing.
November 12, 2012 § Leave a comment
The best hiding spots are the ones that keep you on your toes. Closets may be as cavernous as tombs or as confining as coffins, depending on the architecture of your house and fears, but they must in either case remain dark. Always remember: unless it also prevents your exit, a locked door will be a dead giveaway. Crawlspaces above and below the house should have at least as many cobwebbed corpses as cardboarded keepsakes. Even if not, they remain preferable to standing-room basements and attics. Shimmying under beds is appropriate only when the bed is not yours—even better if is not your room—and you remain red-handed with blame. If you are on the run, areas said to be haunted tend to be good sanctuary, though they become increasingly harder to find the older you get. Unfortunately, the more you believe to be possible after death, the braver you have to be in life. Eventually you will settle for known crime scenes, even if all you can find are those with a history of manslaughter and suicide. You will, however, find these are far more common than you at first thought, at which point the need for endurance will eclipse your lack of bravery.
The point being, you are never so invisible as when you are as terrified of the escape as you are of the capture.
November 8, 2012 § Leave a comment
The shuffling of a dozen church bulletins and the sudden firefly glow of phones displaying the time told R. he needed to find his ending. How to get to repentance, this was always the question. Forgiveness is the easy part: softly and gently Jesus is always calling, he could sing this until he was blue. It seemed to R., though, that if the preacher has done his job, if he’s laid out the sin and he’s described the shame, getting too specific about how to avoid either was a little redundant. Everything else about the religion was built on a surprisingly firm foundation of assumption, from the a priori beginning to the predestined end, but not this? Though it frustrated him that the church allowed no leeway or shortcuts when it came to navigating the narrow path of their salvation, he nevertheless dutifully tried to make it as difficult for them as possible.
—The renowned powders of Phrygia may have promised you vision and the oracles of Apollo portended the unseen, but I tell you this: cast your eyes newly open not outward upon the world, what it has to offer or threatens to bring, or even toward one another, be they family or foe . . . cast them, rather, downward, beyond the neck and below the waist, to your unfortunate exhibition of doughy bits and dangling pieces. Don’t just stand there, naked ones, cover yourself!
September 23, 2012 § Leave a comment
What was beyond dispute, but certainly open for interpretation and opinion, was —Boy, does he pace or what? Whether it be from right to left, or front to back, and on occasion in large circles, R. roamed the small stage not like an animal caged, to be viewed but as though he was the one looking. —Almost like he’s squinting for details, a few of the perceptive had observed. In the trails of a vacuumed carpet, the faded shadow from a dying chandelier bulb, the cedar branches fingernailing the windows during a strong wind, the angular fidgeting of farting men two-arms distant from the women who outnumbered them, the dangling trickle of brow sweat that had wept down and over the left lens of his glasses lingered like a kiss against his cheek, R.’s eyes searched them all, and what they did not find in the details, they created and called their own.