August 23, 1991
I assume you are settling in and preparing for your first classes. A few words of advice from your old man. You know I made no secret of my distaste for your decision to accept employment at Chinook State. The school is a backwater, a stagnant pool in a God-forsaken part of the country. You deserve better. Still, perhaps you can engage in a bit of reclamation work with the students there. Spruce up your publishing record. Then move on to a place that more closely suits your talents and your temperament.
I cannot help but believe this career move simply represents another attempt to separate yourself from your childhood. I am sorry, as your recent letter suggested, that you did not find me to be an adequate father when you were growing up, that you found me to be “difficult, distant, and abusive.” While I do not want to rehearse once again our familiar song and dance, it might not hurt to remind you that we all try our best in this family. And so I did as your father. Your childhood, and our relationship, were perhaps not so grim as you remember. After all, you did choose to become a professor. And I cannot believe you did so only to mock me (although your scholarship suggests otherwise).
I may be visiting your school later this year. Hugh Smalley (a professor in the history department at Chinook State — have you met him?) has invited me to present one of the Chalmers Lectures. As you undoubtedly know, these talks generally concern important historical moments or historical figures. David Mott, who is with me here at Princeton, delivered the Chalmers about five years ago. While I would not ordinarily accept this invitation, it will provide me with an opportunity to see you. I will probably talk about my Lincoln project.
Smalley also proposed a Festschrift roundtable, to be scheduled for the afternoon prior to my lecture. It would be organized as a small panel on antislavery thought, with a focus on my scholarship. Merely an honorific, he has assured me. No responsibilities at all. That seems a thoughtful touch, don’t you think? Although we were at Harvard together as graduate students, I don’t actually know this fellow very well. I must say, however, he seems to be going out of his way to festoon the tarmac for my arrival (as it were).
Your mother is out in the garden as I write. She is standing in the dirt in her bare feet. She wields a large trowel in one hand and a set of clippers in the other. A formidable sight! She just waved and yelled for me to send you her love.
I urge you to reconsider the sentiments voiced in your letter, Eli. They are not accurate and not helpful.
Your Distant Dad
Eli dragged a hand dolly across the quad. He backed along the cobbled walkway, stopping sometimes to peer across his shoulder. After Berkeley, this place seemed small and quiet. It was a Sunday, more than a week before classes were to start, and the campus was nearly empty. Eli nodded at the brownstone buildings rimming the quad, soaked in ivy, solid but unimposing. Flower beds, overflowing still with petunias, marigolds, and geraniums, fronted each building. Nearby, a campus policeman sat quietly on his horse. The policeman smiled and put a finger to his hat.
Campus police on horseback, Eli thought. What a quaint conceit. Cobbled walkways, too. Eli had only been in Portland for a few months, but the city appeared nothing, if not decorous. No one, he thought, would make the mistake of proclaiming Chinook State a Harvard of the Northwest. Even so, the school was clearly the product of a plan. There were the fraternities, of course, near where he sometimes ran in the mornings. They had a seediness about them. But here, at the center of campus, a silent order prevailed. Nothing, none of it, reminded him of Berkeley, with its branching slabs of poured concrete, scorched grey and brown. All that trash, too, blowing down Telegraph Avenue. And the police in riot gear, sprinting across campus, spilling into the streets, to quell another disturbance.
Eli examined the equestrian statue rising above him at the center of the quad. He inspected the snorting, high-stepping horse, noticing its bulk around the chest and withers, the proud arch of its neck as it twisted against the pull of the reins. Eli squinched his face up to read the etching, too, then stepped back to see the man it described. Joseph Faircloth this was, bestriding the horse like a colossus, the reins coiled in one hand, a Bible held high in the other.
Eli knew about Faircloth. A legendary Indian fighter after the Civil War, he had been appointed headmaster of the Chinook State University in the 1880s and 1890s, when it was still just the Oregon Bible and Preparatory Academy. Faircloth stood six-eight in his stocking feet. Eli wondered how the Indians of the Northwest felt. The Yakama, the Cayuse, the Umatilla. How had they felt when Faircloth, no less granitic in life, bore down upon them in the dead of winter, rode down upon them in his beaver hat and long buffalo coat, blazing away with his custom Remington repeater. He smiled at the irony, that Faircloth should be remembered as an educator. But here was Eli, himself, brought to Chinook State to cement that dual legacy, of violence and enlightenment, as a professor in the school’s Western Culture program.
Chucka Boom Boom da Boom
The boom box beat slammed Eli back into the present tense.
Chucka Chucka Boom
Over at the north end of the quad, five or six black kids rode tight circles around a small fountain on their bicycles. One of them, the tallest in the group, had strapped a tape player the size of a suitcase to his handlebars. When the boy saw Eli and the policeman, he wheeled his bike around and skid sideways to a halt. He stood, straddling the bike, lean forearms resting easily on the tape player. He had skin the color of creamed coffee and a fade angled radically and obliquely toward the forehead, a clear lesson in the geometry of style. He gazed evenly at Eli, his the confident look of one, still fresh in youth, who didn’t worry about commanding respect from others.
Eli smiled at the boy.
The boy smiled back. He lifted his shirt, showing Eli the snub-nose tucked in the waistband of his shorts.
Eli’s smile melted. He glanced in every direction, but the quad remained quiet and empty, and within it he now felt hopelessly exposed and vulnerable. He tried to catch the eye of the the mounted policeman, but found no comfort there. The cop slumped on his horse, staring into the distance, away from the youths, toward the river. Eli noticed now the softness around the man’s middle, the sag at his shoulders, the pudginess of his fingers holding the reins. The guy looked nothing like campus policemen at Berkeley, who were muscled and sleek, inscrutable behind their mirrored sunglasses. Mounted or not, Eli thought, this cop doesn’t measure up. He wants nothing to do with these kids. And neither do I.
Eli’s own instincts were to run, to dart toward the river. Instead he reached for the hand dolly. He yanked the dolly once, to get it rolling, and took a few steps backward. And then he heard the epithet, “white faggot”, and the bike wheels churning across the grass. Eli stopped again, lurching around to set the dolly in front of him like a shield.
The gang peddled furiously toward him, toward the statue of Joseph Faircloth, whooping and hollering. They rode high above their bike seats, legs pumping like pistons, looping wide around the statue, hemming in Eli, with his dolly of boxes, and the cop on his horse, who was only now breaking off his reverie. “Ice Cube, Baby!” the tall boy yelled as he circled past the policeman. He juked the volume knob like a throttle, all six speakers blasting at peak wattage.
The bikes, the noise spooked the horse. Eli saw its front legs rise. He saw its mouth wide open, teeth brown, palate red and frothy, terror abject and fresh. He barely had time to spin away from the hand dolly, barely time before the horse’s hooves crashed down upon it, crushing boxes, scattering books and paper.
The policeman fought the horse. He fought its instincts for flight and survival. He pulled tight on the reins, yanking its head, first to the right, then to the left. With kind words, he clucked softly in its ear. Finally, he managed to calm the horse. And then he looked over his shoulder at the kids on bikes, who were laughing as they rode away, west toward the river. But the policeman made no move to head them off. “Fucking kids,” he said to Eli, prone on the ground. “Playing that black shit.”
“One of those boys, the tall one, he had a gun,” Eli said.
The policeman shrugged. He didn’t care. It was probably just a water pistol, he said, and anyway, the kids were gone now. He eased the horse away from the pile of broken boxes and stared down at Eli, half-amused. “You look like you could use some help, though. I’ll call Maintenance.”
“Yeah, thanks,” Eli said. “Call Maintenance.”
The horse stepped nervously in place while he crawled to his feet. Eli had not been so close to a horse in years. It was impossible not to marvel at the beast, its strength so precarious, with more than a thousand pounds of muscle balanced atop tapered, flute-like legs. Eli stared into the eyes of the horse. They were beautiful, large and brown. The nose, with its plushness, seemed indescribably soft and delicate. His fear fading into something resembling fatigue, he knelt to the ground once again and began to pull scattered books into piles.
McIntyre Hall squatted on the east side of the quad. It was one of the original buildings in the campus laid out by Faircloth and his church sponsors in 1883, distinctive even then for its mansard roof. More than a century later, possessing no elevator and few other amenities, faculty members still valued its large, high-ceilinged offices, broad windows, and worn wooden floors. McIntyre was darker, somehow, than other buildings on campus, though constructed from the same quarried brownstone, more ivy-laden, too. The building seemed perpetually in shade, a broad animal at rest, crouched within a dense, leafy glade.
Western Culture occupied a small alcove on the third floor of McIntyre. Offices faced west on to the quad, toward the river. As a graduate student, Eli’s habitat had been a barren metal cubicle in a windowless room in the basement of the Doe Library at Berkeley, and this only heightened his appreciation for his new office. He loved its substantiality, the heaviness of the wood in the window frames and in the desk and chairs, the richness of the moulding, the scarred beauty of the old floor, these things testaments of his significance, providing him with evidence that his work finally mattered.
A crew from Maintenance had stacked his books in new boxes. They had also insisted upon carting the entire load up the two flights for him. But though he had spent the past several hours unpacking, at least two dozen boxes still remained unopen. The heat had only intensified through the afternoon. Now there would be no way to get all the books on to shelves, Eli thought, and certainly not in their proper order, before it did him in. So he gazed once more around the office, caressing the unpacked titles now in place with his eyes, his Plato and Aristotle, his Molesworth Hobbes, his eight-volume collection of Lincoln, several books by his father. On a shelf by itself, secured within its own glass-encased frame, there was also his thirtieth-birthday present from Tobias, an original copy of Thoreau’s pamphlet, Civil Disobedience, the famous statement on war, slavery, and conscience delivered to the Concord Lyceum in 1848. “Soul of the American struggle against slavery,” his father had said. “And I don’t mind telling you,” he added, “it set me back almost a thousand dollars.”
“You shouldn’t have done this,” Eli had said.
His father had looked at him. “You’re right,” he said, “I probably shouldn’t have.”
Eli left the office and pulled the heavy oak door shut within its casement. He contemplated the temple-like stillness of the building, the arrival of evening, and the prospect of relief from the heat. But there in the vestibule at the bottom of the stairwell, standing like a statue, there was Shahid. He was a short man, of indeterminate racial origin, draped in a white robe and an unadorned white skullcap. He looked to be from somewhere in the Middle East. Or North Africa.
“Your nightmare, man,” he said to Eli.
“Your nightmare. Those kids. Scared you to death, didn’t they? I think they did.”
“No.” Eli laughed. “Why would they scare me?” He looked round the vestibule and out through the open doorway toward the statue of Joseph Faircloth. The policeman had ridden off on his horse hours before. There was no one outside, nor in the building so far as Eli could tell. He stared directly at Shahid. “Are you trying to scare me?”
“I don’t need to try,” Shahid said. He moved closer to Eli, and Eli noticed the squared, miniaturized intensity of his face, the cranium broad in proportion to its length, the jaw firm, the eyes set far apart. “I’m a black man. I scare you simply because I am. Just like those children.”
“This is ridiculous,” Eli said. “You’ll have to excuse me.” He moved toward the door. Shahid moved with him, angling quickly so Eli would have to squeeze past him to exit the building.
Eli paused, alarmed. “What’s going on here?” he said roughly. “What do you want?” Eli knew he had conceded too much to this young Arab. Or young black man. Whatever he was. Tobias would have pushed the punk aside and swept out the door.
“I’m Shahid,” Shahid said, one hand holding the door shut. “You don’t know me. I know you, though. You’re Wheeler. You’re the new professor.”
Eli wondered how Shahid knew who he was. But the connection bridged his fear. “If you want to ask about my courses, contact me tomorrow,” Eli said. In my office.” He turned the door knob.
Shahid did not relinquish his hold on the door. His strength surprised Eli. “I wish to tell you something before you go,” he said.
Eli released the knob and fell back a step or two. “Okay. I’m listening. What do you have to say?”
“You know about the diversity project?”
“You know about plans to eliminate the program?”
“I hadn’t heard.”
“Well, they’re cutting us loose,” Shahid said. “By the end of the year, there won’t be one nigger left in this place.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Not as sorry as you should be.”
“Look, Shahid. Whatever your name is. Why are you telling me this? How can I help you?”
“You cannot help me. That would not be possible. But perhaps I can help you, Professor.”
“I doubt it.” Eli moved for the door.
Shahid slipped ahead of him again and placed his hand on the knob. “You’re going to be teaching Western Civilization. American civilization. Right?”
“The galaxy of stars in the white man’s firmament. Plato. Machiavelli. Jefferson. Lincoln. Am I right?” Shahid possessed the bearing of a pugilist, the cocky upthrusting of chest and chin, the fists half-clenched. Eli guessed Shahid would not mind punching the light from those stars.
“Well,” Shahid went on, “Western Civilization as you know it, Professor, as this place knows it, ends this year. My advice to you? You put your books back in their boxes right now. You take an early retirement from Chinook State. Let the school find someone else to teach those white men. Save your skin, Wheeler.”
Eli laughed again. “You are threatening me, aren’t you?”
Shahid opened the door to the building. “Ma’shallah,” he said. “I’m just a messenger for the truth. This will be Allah’s justice. This will be Allah’s victory.” He paused on the steps, looking Eli up and down. He smiled dismissively then slipped out into the sunlight, and the hard heat upon the quad.
Harry Hamish hung like a bat from the ceiling in his office. He unwound this way every afternoon. The idea was to go limp, empty his mind and let each muscle in his body slacken. He liked the anti-gravity boots. But try as he might to clear his head–and, truth be told, he didn’t waste energy in the effort–prurient thoughts would creep back in.
Shortly before Eli knocked on the door, Harry’s mind wandered to the new secretary in the administrative pool. Rebecca Wilson. Unlike students who shed their clothing in these late afternoon “batdreams”, as he liked to call them, Rebecca was not young enough to be his daughter. Harry was a spry and healthy-looking forty-six. With bushy red hair and a well-developed upper body, he looked fully ten years younger. In recent months, though, he had come to acknowledge age did matter. He now cared more for experience. That was one reason he had left teaching for administrative work, if that’s what one could call what he did. Errand boy for Dean Pritchard might be closer to the truth. Harry still had to admit there was nothing so breathtaking as an apple-cheeked young thing fairly bursting out of her t-shirt. But seasoning meant more at his age.
While Rebecca Wilson was no classic beauty, Susan Sarandon-like, there was something undeniably sexual about her. She had lovely, thick hair that dropped well below her shoulders, a full and sensuous mouth, and what looked to be firm, well-shaped breasts. For Harry, her sexual allure also resided in another simple fact. Unlike the students at Chinook State, Rebecca owned a history. She was in her mid-thirties now, a graduate of Bennington, a refugee from the New York publishing world, married, divorced, with a child half-grown. She had pursued and pitched careers and men alike, had known extremes of joy and sadness, and through the years had grown both more cynical and more sophisticated, more sensuous and more introverted, more serious and more flirtatious. What attracted Harry to Rebecca was the imprint upon her of life itself.
Harry swung in the breeze whispering through his window. It was a quiet afternoon. His official responsibilities ended at 1:00 every day. In theory, this left time in the afternoon for his research. But Harry had completed his monograph on legislative patronage in Mexico. He was dangling between projects, and this liberated him all the more openly to indulge non-professional interests. And so now he closed his eyes, and in his mind Rebecca had entered the room. Placing her pad and pen on his desk, removing her glasses, slipping from her sandals, her eyes not straying from his, drawing near to him, her face, her body only inches from his. Oh, Harry, she said, her mouth pouty and downcast, her voice a heavy whisper. You’ve been on my mind. I’ve not been able to stop thinking about you. Her fingers stroking his cheek, trailing through his hair, her parted lips brushing his mouth.
This was how Harry imagined Rebecca Wilson. And this seemed like enough. But then he thought, what the hell, I have nothing else to do this afternoon. And so he imagined her some more. She was half-clothed now, straddling him on the blonde leather sofa in his office, sweat beading on her shoulders, palms steaming as she fumbled, first with the buttons of his shirt, then with his zipper. She was kissing him. Here and there. Her mouth was like the ocean, wet and warm and salty, she was swallowing him, he was drowning, her tongue was like a slippery sea creature, moving in and out of his mouth, his ear, sliding on his neck and chest and belly, romping and playing.
Harry imagined Rebecca’s breasts, too, loosed from the cups of her bra, loosed from their blouse, now swaying above his chest, now resting gently in the palms of his hands. He thought of his childhood, of the grass back in Prospect Park, cool and soft under his bare feet in the summer as he chased friends across the lawn, a water balloon in each hand ready for the tossing. He thought of that moment as his happiness and now Rebecca’s breasts floating in his palms, heavy and warm and distended, reminded him of that happiness.
Her mouth flared. She arched her neck, moaning. Her grip upon his shoulders tightened. She was riding him now, hard and heavy. She was lifting herself upon him, that smile of beatitude there, there for him. She was slipping down upon him, gasping at his immensity, his capacity to fill her up, to satisfy the depths of her need, of her hunger. They merged. Their flesh stilled. And then the rhythm began again, and yet again, building in pace and tempo, climbing toward the radical climax that would consume them both.
The knock grew louder as the office door swung open. Harry’s eyelids lifted, enough to see Eli, leaning against the doorframe, taking it in, this grown man hanging from the ceiling like a piece of slaughtered meat.
“Can I help you?” Harry growled, coming out of his daydream now.
Eli stepped into the room. “I’m Eli Wheeler,” he said. “We had an appointment? The secretary over there,” he pointed out the door toward Rebecca Wilson, “she said you were expecting me.”
Harry could see Rebecca smiling at him. He knew how he must look. Well, he thought, she just brightened his day. No reason not to return the favor. He swung his body back once, pumped his arms, and threw himself skyward toward the bar attached to the ceiling. Unhooking the boots, he lowered himself to the ground feet first. He pointed Eli toward the sofa.
“Welcome, young fellow. Have a seat. I was expecting you.” Harry had not been expecting Eli, though he knew that was his own fault, the consequence of his failure to check his schedule after lunch. He sat down, too, in an ergonomically correct, reclining leather desk chair, this chair resting behind the slab of burnished walnut he used for a desk. Pritchard hadn’t liked it when Harry moved the furniture over from his old office in the Political Science Department. It was not seemly, Pritchard had said, that the office of a part-time Associate Dean at a state university should resemble the office of the CEO of a private corporation. At a time when budgets were shrinking and politicians were looking for evidence of fiscal abuse. At a time when public support for higher education was at risk. But what was he supposed to say? Harry thought. This was his furniture, purchased with his money. Was he now required to burn it? Just to satisfy the sub-fuhrer instincts of this weasel who was now his boss? Thank god, he and Pritchard knew they both really reported to the same higher authority, Dame Mistress Chancellor Gamson-Clark. Harry preferred to think of her as Chancellor Gams, she of the long legs and short skirts, hired six years previously to chat up the more lecherous alums and boost endowment. Harry finished tying his shoes and tightening the knot in his tie. He glanced at Eli and shuffled some papers, slipping into an official pose. The folder on Wheeler was right here on the desk. He might as well do some real work before the day ended. Perhaps it would impress Rebecca, to see him engaged in serious conversation with this young man. “You ever use this contraption?” he said, pointing at the anti-gravity boots.
“I did actually,” Eli said. “About ten years ago. To stretch out the muscles and joints in my legs. I couldn’t handle all the blood rushing to my head.” He smiled at Harry. “Made me too smart.”
Harry nodded agreeably. “I’m sure I don’t have that trouble.” He riffled through the file. “So. Eli Wheeler. I see we are newly minted from Berkeley. A specialist in the politics and history of antislavery movements in Europe and America. Hired to teach intellectual and cultural history in the Western Culture program here at Chinook State. Everything seems to be in order. Have you settled into your office yet? Met your colleagues?”
Eli waved his hand. “Yeah, yeah, that’s all fine. Actually, what I wanted to speak with you about is a student. Shahid. Do you know a guy named Shahid?”
“That must be him. He’s a short guy. Stocky. A little older than the average student. He only called himself Shahid.”
“I know him.” Harry stood and walked to the door. He pushed it shut. “What did he want with you?”
“He wanted to warn me away from the school. He said western civilization as we know it would be ending this year. He also said Chinook State plans to ditch the diversity project and get rid of black students like him. He told me I should save my skin.”
“Where did you run into him?”
“In McIntyre. Yesterday afternoon. Some black kids flashed a gun at me. They spooked a police horse. The horse trampled my boxes. Shahid was hassling me about it.”
“So you believe Shahid’s claim, that he’s black?”
“I don’t know. He looked to me like he might be from the Middle East.”
“Well, young fellow, I’m new in this job. I’m still not privy to all the information on students, but I’m sure you’re right. Shahid is from the Middle East. Or at least his parents are. I need to tell you something else, though. And this is between you and me.” Harry moved back to his desk. He passed one hand through his hair. “No matter where he’s from, I wouldn’t take his threat lightly. There was a young professor last year. A woman. Her name was Rochelle. Gwendolyn Rochelle. She was in her first year here, teaching in the Classics Department, and sometime around March she just disappeared. Poof. Into thin air.”
Eli sat higher on the sofa. “What are you saying? She was killed?”
“No, no, no, she wasn’t killed. She took off. She quit.”
“What does this have to do with Shahid?”
Harry shook his head, as if to dislodge an uncomfortable thought. “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe nothing. Maybe a lot. Gwendolyn never gave a clear reason for leaving. But she was a Platonist, someone who valued balance and harmony, who strived in her life and in her teaching to inhabit realms of truth and beauty. Politics, anything that involved disagreement and conflict, deeply upset her. Shahid was in her class. A few weeks before she disappeared, he drew her into a debate on the influence of Egyptian culture in ancient Greece. He’s a smart guy. Very Afrocentric. And he baits teachers. He wouldn’t back down in Gwendolyn’s class. He humiliated her in front of scores of students. She cried in her office for hours afterward.” Harry glanced out the window, as if she might walk by. Gwendolyn. He had dated her once. She had been a strange woman, quiet and withdrawn, but Harry found her to be striking, pale and willowy, with a large, rubbery mouth and high cheekbones and green eyes. He would have gone to bed with her. She had declined his offer, though. He glanced down at his desk, pensively, then held up sheets of smudged newsprint. “You know what this is?”
“Sure,” Eli said. “It’s a Racing Form.“
“I play the horses,” Harry said. “Over at the Old Rose.”
Eli shook his head.
“Rose City Racecourse. You can get to it off the interstate,” Harry said. “Just south of the St. Johns Bridge. Before World War II, Rose City was the Saratoga of the Northwest. Now it’s just another broken-down track in a broken-down part of town.”
Eli told Harry some of his friends growing up used to skip school and drive down to the racetracks at Monmouth Park or Atlantic City. They would come back late in the day, aglow with tales of luck and larceny, of small fortunes won and lost. He had never gone with them.
Harry nodded. “I’m sure your friends all met bad ends, too. But the horsetrack is a big part of my life. You might say it’s the other half of my identity.” He looked hard at Eli. “Most people have two sides, you know. The one they show the world and the one they won’t even show themselves.” He puffed his chest like an adder. “I’m a good horseplayer. I know what I’m doing. I make money. I don’t keep secrets from anyone. That’s how I stay whole. How do you do it?”
“I’m a runner,” Eli said, thinking that didn’t sound like much, but knowing up to now, at least, that it had been enough.
“Good for you,” Harry said. “The loneliness of the long-distance runner.”
He tapped the Racing Form with his index finger. “There’s a columnist in here. Jimmy Buscaglia. People call him Jimmy the Bum. Damon Runyon could have written him into a story. Big cigar jammed in his mouth, long, stringy hair, loud vests. Every so often, in his column, he jumps all over a horse. He lubricates people for weeks ahead of time. Gets everyone juiced and drives down the odds. Sometimes the horse wins. More often it doesn’t. But this is the trick. When Jimmy the Bum touts a horses, he usually has his eye on another horse running in the same race. The odds on his tout go down. The odds on his own private sweet thing go up. His nag romps, the tout runs up the track, and Jimmy cashes for five or ten grand. It’s a good scam. He preys on the existential dread of horseplayers, their fear of standing alone and failing. They want that sure thing. He offers them that illusion of security, of safety.” Harry placed the Form back on his desk. “Do you understand what I’m saying, Eli?”
Eli shook his head. He really didn’t.
“Students here call Shahid Little X,” Harry said. “He’s articulate and forceful. He speaks to the fear, anxiety, and anger of minority students on campus, especially blacks. He satisfies their need for a prophet, someone to interpret their past and offer a vision of their future. That’s legitimate, I suppose. How else can people make sense of their present? It’s not that different from what happens at the racetrack. People there, a lot of them are wounded, they’re vulnerable, they’re helpless. They want a rock to cling to, a sense that there’s an order to the universe, that the outcomes to races aren’t random, even if the outcomes in their lives often seem to be. So they listen, eagerly, when someone like Jimmy the Bum spoons out his pablum. Only problem is, I’ve seen too many of his sure things run up the track. Jimmy the Bum’s a false prophet. And my suspicion is, so’s Shahid. He’s angry. He’s cynical. There’s no true redemption in his vision of the world. Only the manipulation of human emotion, the exploitation of vulnerability and need.”
Bitterness tinged Harry’s words, as if he were mourning the loss of something precious in his life. He spun his chair round and peered for a moment out the window toward the Willamette, the water royal blue and calm, clouds like spun cotton hanging above. An old ChrisCraft, all mahogany, chrome, and leather, pulled a young woman on waterskis. She skipped cross the boat’s wake, taking Harry with her toward the farther shore. “Good day to be out on the water,” he mused. “Get away from this crap.”
Growing up the son of a university professor, Eli learned early to sense the atmospherics on a college campus. From his father, he knew the pristine surface of academic life belied its underlying turbulence. He understood that self-regarding, prudent professors sought a sunny clime in favored, well-funded departments, or located safe harbors in minor, niche programs. If young and inexperienced, they found a patron. If older and well-established, they built an empire. Above all, they avoided storm centers. They insulated themselves from disciplines that were mired in controversy, politically divided, lacking an independent power base, or otherwise vulnerable to outside pressures, from rival departments, from students, from standing committees, and especially from administrators. Stay away from the guys in suits, Tobias would say to him. They’ll chew your balls off. Make you just like one of them.
Eli knew all this. He knew, too, that Tobias’s own self-proclaimed virtuosity in the pit of academic politics had not prevented him from being disciplined by the administration at Princeton, not once, but twice, both times for verbal assaults on the president of the university, a former colleague in the history department whom Tobias had scorned for abandoning the great vocation to serve an unbridled personal ambition. But Eli had learned to do as his father said, not as his father did, and for him, one of the most attractive features of the Western Culture program at Chinook State was the evident solidarity of the faculty in the program and the security of the niche it occupied within the thicket of disciplines, departments, and institutes at the school.
After the encounter with Shahid, Eli had gone first to visit John Jergensen, the long-time head of Western Culture. Jergensen, big and bluff, had been through the mill in recent years. His program had risen out of obscurity during the incipient stages of the diversity wars fought on college campuses in the late 1980s. It had risen from almost nothing, a little four-person craft, serving the ill-defined needs of Chinook State’s core curriculum with a medley of courses on subjects as varied as The Gothic Moment in European Civilization and The Nun in the Nightgown: French Enlightenment High and Low. Jergensen himself had carved a home for himself in the field of Kierkegaard studies, having published a short book on Fear and Trembling, and the program everywhere carried the imprint of his interest in religion and philosophy. When the advent of the diversity project gave rise to a new generation of student protest movements, he vigorously defended his program against the standard charge, that western civilization rested upon the twin abutments of racism and sexism. From Jergensen’s perspective, campus malcontents cared nothing for the truth on this matter. Their interest in the curriculum was merely as an instrument for serving the therapeutic needs of marginal Others. Marginal Others Jergensen would snort, bilious and bereaved at the same time. One cannot judge history in this simple-minded way. I will not allow it. I will not pander to this perverse need, to salve the wounds of so-called culture victims. I will not participate in a celebration of victimhood.
True to his word, he did not retreat. And the militants were frankly surprised by the firmness of Jergensen’s stand. He was in other respects a decent man and they had underestimated him. They were surprised and annoyed that he, the head of Chinook State’s little program, should resist their demands for reform when WestCiv heavyweights at “real” schools like Stanford had collapsed like wet cardboard. So they occupied his office and disturbed his classes and he said, Fine, you can have the fucking office and you can have the fucking classroom. I don’t need them to teach. And he led his students to his own home, where for two weeks he taught all of his classes, in his living room, with his students wedged in like soldiers on a troop train, dripping wet from the nonstop deluge of rain outside, with the other students protesting on the street, the ink streaking on their signs and placards, the reporters first shoving microphones in their faces, and then, when Jergensen dismissed class, sprinting to the front door to ram their microphones in his face.
That winter, Newsweek ran an article on Chinook State, in which they featured the unveiling of the diversity project along with sidebars on Chancellor Gamson-Clark, the working-class white students of Chinook State, and their new black and Latino counterparts. There was one on Jergensen, too, with a photo of him lecturing about Nietzsche from his living room. The Mouse that Roared, ran the headline of the article, which profiled the stubborn resistance to student demands of Jergensen and his little program.
Jergensen claimed to be a supporter of the diversity project. He believed Chinook State and other public institutions had a responsibility to serve disadvantaged sectors of the population, and if that meant seeking them out from inner-city neighborhoods across the West and Southwest, well he didn’t have any trouble with that either. But as he explained to the Newsweek reporter, the history of any great civilization subverted any simple set of moral judgments. To organize a curriculum around emotions of anger, envy, and resentment deprived students of the one great gift offered to them by the study of culture and civilization, a sense of their own participation within a grand, cosmic drama.
In this manner had Jergensen addressed the issue, so forthrightly and eloquently that, in the eyes of most, he had clearly won the day. The protesting students finally gave up and began looking for another cause. Jergensen could rest easy in the knowledge that the administration and most of the faculty had backed him through the course of the controversy. Western Culture continued to offer the same menu of courses and, if anything, student interest in the program mounted in the aftermath of the protests. Jergensen also leveraged the attention into an additional faculty slot, the one filled by Eli. He had long admired Tobias’s scholarship, and in his view the younger Wheeler demonstrated the potential to produce work of equal, if not superior, quality. It was strange, he had to admit, that Eli, in his dissertation, would so directly attack the foundations of Tobias’s research. The son giving his father the back of the hand. In print, no less. Jergensen was, however, not one to probe too deeply into the psychological foundations of intellectual development. There was no doubt about Eli himself being a first-rate scholar, and that was what mattered.
There it was, in a nutshell. Student reformers had campaigned for the abolition of the Western Culture program. Short of that, they had demanded a dramatic revision of the curriculum and a raft of minority faculty appointments. Instead, Chinook State hired Eli, a pedigreed white male, whose arrival on campus clearly signified the shallowness, or at least the ambivalence, of support within the community for the diversity project. The ironies were not lost on anyone. Not on Harry Hamish. Not on Shahid. And not on Jergensen, who understood that if the fortunes of minorities on campus, black students especially, did continue to sink, Eli might be in for some rough going. He didn’t know what to do about it. The best he could hope for was that any hostility Eli met would test and strengthen the young man’s character. Understanding the situation as he did, Jergensen wanted to offer his younger colleague more than an attentive ear concerning the incident with Shahid. He knew Shahid, had even had Shahid in his classes, although Shahid had not been much of a presence in the protests. He understood that Shahid, though only a student, was not someone to trifle with. But this was the other issue. Jergensen had suffered more than most people realized in the defense of Western Culture. He was no longer young, his blood pressure had soared, he periodically had to endure bouts of angina, and in this sense, of course, it was the students who had won. He wanted a few years of peace before retiring and, as a result, he only nodded sympathetically while Eli told his story. He nodded sympathetically and then passed Eli on to the Dean’s office. He didn’t like Pritchard. No one did. But Pritchard would know well enough what advice to offer. And he certainly had the authority to deal with Shahid.
So that was how Eli found himself sitting in the well-appointed office of Harry Hamish. He had phoned Dean Pritchard’s office earlier in the day, still uncertain about the whole matter, and been secretly relieved when the secretary there told him Dean Pritchard would be with the Chancellor for most of the afternoon. Associate Dean Hamish had a clear schedule, though, she said. Associate Dean Hamish, Eli had thought. He might as well be named Associate Dean Nebbish. Then he saw the guy hanging upside down from those boots, the two halves of his tie dripping in front of his face like drunken clock hands, and Eli wondered what fool this was. But now, sitting back on the sofa, admiring the art on the walls, the small pieces of sculpture on the shelves and desk, Eli found himself musing about how Harry Hamish had framed this existence, almost entirely outside the margins of the standard mail-order dean persona. Eli wondered how, and why, Harry Hamish had obtained this appointment, and he thought about broaching the subject, though not for long.
Two quick raps on the door preceded the entry of James Pritchard into Harry’s office, or perhaps more accurately, of James Pritchard’s famous white pompadour and strangely misshapen face. Eli was taken aback. He had heard from others that seeing Pritchard for the first time could be disturbing (a poster boy for Night of the Living Dead, one colleague warned him), and for weeks, since his arrival in Portland, he had steeled himself to witness whatever unnameable thing it was that marked Pritchard. But no partial, exterior deformity defaced the man. He was strange-looking, yes. The strangeness was all-encompassing, though, and more the projection of an inward force, an inhabitation of his soul. Eli groped for a marker, a referent from history. Pritchard’s was a face so roughhewn, so ugly, it was almost unhuman. Not quite Lincolnesque, this long, thin, sad face. It was Jacksonesque! He thought of Andrew Jackson, wraith-like astride his horse as he rode furiously across Florida during the Seminole War. And here was Pritchard, now standing in the doorway, now sliding ghostlike toward Eli, his hand outstretched, a man, like Jackson, tall and gaunt, his complexion sallow and unhealthy, his body thin and emaciated. Eli thought of running, crab-like, past this embodiment of childhood fear, this specter of disease and death. But he did not run. He only rose and reached forward to grasp Pritchard’s hand, what there was of it. The man did not grip. There was no muscle, only skin wrapped loosely around tendon and bone.
“Eli Wheeler!” Pritchard said, and the words as they came out sounded deep and resonant, testosterone-drenched, less brittle-seeming and cadaverous, though not for that reason less frightening, than the man himself. “I’ve been forewarned by Rebecca that you are in here with Associate Dean Hamish. I hope you don’t mind my interruption. It’s rather important.”
“No, no,” Eli said, rising quickly. “I don’t mind.”
Harry, who did mind, waved Eli from the room, asking him to wait outside, saying he and Pritchard would just be a minute and there was still more he and Eli needed to discuss. But his manner was brusque, angry even, and it almost seemed he wanted these things to be plain to Eli, that he did not fear Pritchard, that he was in no sense an underling of Pritchard’s, and that he was certainly not tied to Pritchard’s schedule.
Eli sat in the outer office. Harry and Pritchard were arguing. He could feel the heat in their words, though not make out the substance. Across the room, the door to Pritchard’s own office was open. Through it Eli could see a swarm of vegetation, exotic plants with broad fronds and bright flowers. Pritchard had flown the plants in from Brazil and Venezuela, Belize and the Everglades, and they grew now in his office with the assistance of heated lamps and special humidifiers. There was a story here, of course. Pritchard had been a tropical botanist, renowned for his studies of the rain forest and his work with pharmaceutical companies to develop herbal medicines. In 1984, so the story went, Pritchard had been down in Belize, living in the jungle, studying the pollination of a rare type of epiphytic orchid, when a bushmaster bit his young wife, a former student. She had ventured from their tent at night, at Pritchard’s request, and against her own wishes, to retrieve floral samples and equipment left at their research site. The snake had been sleeping under an overturned pail at the site, and when his wife stooped to retrieve the pail, it bit deep into her shoulder. The death had been horrible, worse, perhaps, even to witness than to experience. Stricken by grief, Pritchard took a leave of absence from school. He retreated to his houseboat on the Willamette, drew the blinds, locked the doors, and received no visitors. Fourteen months passed before the man reemerged, his hair now white and wispy, his once-sturdy frame pencil-thin, his face gaunt. It was as if Pritchard’s spirit had laid waste to his own body, irradiating it, unnaturally, with wave upon wave of bitter feeling. Pritchard had always been a cunning man, an ambitious man. But in this period of descent and self-damnation, his cunning multiplied. His ambition curdled. Pritchard had evolved into something both more and less than his former self. He’d grown talons and a beak and mutated into a bird of prey.
Pritchard never did return either to teaching or to formal research. Instead, the condition for his return to Chinook State the following year became his elevation to an administrative post. Pritchard wanted to be Dean of the University, though he settled at first for the subaltern position Harry presently held. His professional reputation, along with influence he wielded over older members of the faculty and sympathy his personal tragedy inspired, overcame the vaguely sinister aura he now projected. Within two years, by virtue of his relentless capacity for hard, purposive work and his hardliner’s willingness to bludgeon into line those he could not lure through sidepocket favors, Pritchard had not only displaced the Dean, he had amassed an enormous amount of personal power. Richelieu-like, his reach in some respects now exceeded that of the Chancellor. And there really was no doubt about his being a hardliner, especially when it came to curricular matters, concerning which he remained a fundamentalist. He considered the diversity project to be the pathetic toy of Gamson-Clark. He had only waived his initial objections to the program because he believed its inevitable demise would redound to his advantage. And the diversity project was indeed now in trouble, the consequence, he was sure, of having been unwieldy, overly ambitious, and oversold to begin with. With the assistance of key members of the Board of Trustees, Pritchard had begun to pressure the Chancellor to dismantle the program.
It was nearly 5:00. Rebecca Wilson turned off her computer and reached down to slip on her sandals. Eli wondered what Rebecca thought of Pritchard. And of Harry, for that matter. Somehow, she seemed above it all. Academic pretensions. Academic politics. When Eli had spoken to her on the phone about setting up an appointment with Pritchard, her manner had been amused, as if he were a prisoner come to the warden to complain about the food. Now she tossed her hair, pulled it back with her hand, and gathered it into a pony tail as she rose from her desk. She smiled at Eli. “Good night, Professor.” Eli returned her smile, then looked away without speaking, his shyness rising like a ghost. The Holy Ghost, he thought to himself. Keeping him pure. There had been Kelly, of course. At night he had pulled her to him and they had roamed silently across the sheets, bathed in a common sweat of need and desire. But she was gone now, and her absence had cut him off from that feral sense of sex as a mystery. Hints of it in his encounters with other women disturbed his equilibrium and made him feel unsafe.
The door to Harry’s office opened. Pritchard glided out, unperturbed, it seemed, by the intensity of his meeting with Harry. He glanced at Eli. “Associate Dean Hamish will see you again.” Eli nodded. Pritchard slipped into the mist creeping from his office, but turned back toward Eli before shutting the door. “Come see me sometime, Eli. Let’s get to know each other better.”
“What was that all about?”
Harry tilted back in his chair and stared up at the ceiling. After a moment, he sighed and swung his feet off the desk. “What was that all about? Leaf-Boy was telling me about his meeting with the Chancellor,” he said. “They talked about how he doesn’t want me here. He says I’m her guy. Her banana man. Here to spy on him. But you know what, Eli? I could give a shit what he thinks. Gamson-Clark did hire me. There’s nothing Pritchard can do about it, either. He can’t touch me, and that drives him crazy.”
“Why would they be meeting to talk about you?”
“They weren’t meeting to talk about me,” Harry said. “They were meeting to talk about the diversity project.”
Eli stared evenly at Harry. “He’s going to dump the black students here, isn’t he?”
Harry nodded. Shahid had been right, he said. Most of that afternoon’s meeting between Pritchard and the Chancellor concerned the fate of the diversity project. Pritchard wanted to phase the program out. Declare victory and withdraw the troops. But Gamson-Clark had staked her reputation at Chinook State on its success. Everyone knew this. Pritchard’s plan was to throttle the program, get rid of the black students, especially, or at least make them swim on their own. Gamson-Clark had said over her dead body. So Harry was sure there would be a battle this year, and that it would be a street brawl. That was fine. He didn’t mind mixing it up. Like he said, Pritchard couldn’t touch him. But his concern at the moment was that as the new professor in Western Culture, someone who taught courses with racial themes, Eli might get drawn into the crossfire.
“I can take care of myself,” Eli said.
“I’m sure you can,” Harry said. “But there’s more at stake in this battle than you might realize. Neither Gamson-Clark nor Pritchard, nor Shahid for that matter, are the sort to take prisoners. So I’m suggesting you watch your back. Teach your courses. Inspire and move your students. Have a good time. But remember, too, whom you can trust.” Harry’s thoughts drifted once again. “Maybe that was Gwendolyn’s mistake,” he said. “She wasn’t vigilant enough.”
“You could make a movie about roses,” Jane was telling Eli. “And you would have all the elements for a great story: sex and violence, romance and intrigue, honor and betrayal.” They stood in the rose garden. Jane’s clippers flashed through the thorny branches, snipping and snapping like an angry mutt. Eli liked Jane. She was all business and she spoke her mind.
The rose garden itself was a blend of hybrid teas, floribundas, and old roses. A brick path fed from the back door of the house, past a stand of pink dogwood, into the garden. It curled through regimental arrangements of bushes, shrubs, and climbers, circling in front of a hedge of Japanese yew, an arbor, a cedar bench, and looping around a smaller central bed filled with miniature roses and fairy roses, a sprinkling of alyssum and dianthus, too. Over a span of decades, Jane had lavished attention and love upon the garden. It was her solace, she told Eli when he first moved in, her solace for giving up dreams of becoming a horticulturalist. She had graduated college, married Gerald, gotten pregnant with their first boy, and that had been that. The boys were grown now, except for Rupert, her baby, but she could still tend the rose garden. She spent hours in the garden. She would deadhead and prune and weed and water. And when darkness finally settled, she would sit on the bench and watch the stars, one by one, prick tiny holes in the sky.
Eli had rented the third floor of the house in June. The previous tenant, a black, bald librettist from Alabama, moved out when it became clear he could not make payments on both the rent and his Steinway. Jane had grown fond of the librettist, his name was Othello, who told her dusky tales about growing up poor and black in the rural South during the civil rights movement. When Eli moved in, she stood there, wiping her hands on her housedress, telling him she hoped he could spin a yarn as well as Othello. Eli had turned away. “I’m not much of a storyteller,” he said.
So Eli lived alone on the third floor, which actually had a small ballroom, along with two side bedrooms, and a large bathroom with an old, deep clawfoot tub. A stairway ran along one side of the house, rising from the edge of the brick patio to a balcony extending from one of the bedrooms. Jane and Gerald said they did not mind if he used the ballroom as a library and study, and that he should also feel free to inhabit the rest of the house as if it were his own home.
Jane and Gerald may have sensed the tender ache beneath the shell of competence and independence Eli presented to the world. They may not have. Certainly, it was in their natures to extend an open hand to their tenants, who were invariably young, single men trying to find their way. Jane, especially, welcomed them into her home as if they were children of her own. Previous tenants had occupied the third floor for many years, and in some cases, they may well have come to see Jane and Gerald as surrogate parents. Almost all stayed in regular touch after they moved away, once having been fledlgings, Jane liked to say, now soaring on their own.
And so through the summer, Eli virtually lived in the ballroom, in which he had planted a desk, a rug, a table, a wing chair, twelve seven-foot bookshelves, and a small stereo. During the day, he sat at his desk, writing and staring out on to the back yard, where he could see Jane in her garden or Rupert, home from college, lifting weights on the patio. When he raised his gaze beyond the oaks and maples rimming the yard, he could see the Willamette, snaking north toward its confluence with the Columbia, and beyond that the towers of downtown Portland and the West Hills. After dinner, which he usually ate by himself, he would move to the wing chair and read deep into the night.
Out in the garden, Eli peered at the tags affixed to the stems of the bushes. Reine des Violettes. Souvenir de la Malmaison. “You’d need English subtitles for your movie,” he said to Jane.
“Not hardly,” she paused to point with the clippers. “There’s your Nymph’s Thigh. And your Mister Lincoln. And over there’s your Tropicana and your Peace. Like I said, it would be a good movie. Roses offer sensuality, indulgence, purity, love. Cleopatra stepping through rose petals to greet Mark Antony. Nero’s banquets, with petals strewn on the floor, draped from the ceiling in nets, petals in the food, in the beds. During the Middle Ages, you had the great rose windows of the cathredrals, the rose the flower of the Virgin. Roses indicate dynastic ambition, too. As in the War of the Roses. Or the Napoleonic Wars, when Josephine gathered cuttings from every nation conquered by her husband.”
Eli pulled a bud from one of the bushes. Its fragrance sailed past him like a song. He smiled at Jane. “And here we are, meeting sub rosa. Just like the Romans.”
She laughed, stepping back from the branches to eye her work. “I forgot to tell you,” she said. “There’s a letter on the kitchen table from your father.”
“What do you hear from your parents?” she said, casually.
“Not much. They’re okay.”
Jane moved around a bush, deadheading. “Stop mutilating that poor rosebud, Eli,” she said.
Eli tossed the bud to the ground. “They’ve been in Providence for the past month. My father was doing research at the John Carter Brown Library. My mother worked on her architectural sketches.”
“Such fascinating parents, dear. Both so talented.”
Jane changed the subject. “Classes begin on Monday, don’t they?”
Eli nodded again.
“You must be looking forward to jumping in.”
“I was. Until I got waylaid by Shahid. Now I’m not so sure.”
“I wouldn’t worry about Shahid,” Jane said. “He’s one student out of how many, sixteen thousand?”
Eli shook his head. “He didn’t seem like other students. White students mostly want to know when’s the next kegger. Black students, they’re not like that. They’re motivated, at least. But they’re consumed, too, by this sense of themselves as victims. That wasn’t how Shahid seemed to me, though. At least, that wasn’t all he seemed to me.”
Jane had moved to the back of the garden, where creepers hid a small toolshed. Eli could hear her rummaging in the shed. “How did he seem to you,” she called out.
“Very confident. Astounding arrogance. Like no one could touch him.”
Jane didn’t say anything. The walls of the shed thumped. Eli wondered what she could be doing in there. He looked down. His toes plowed furrows in the dirt patch at his feet. He worried the patch, pushing out against the bricks. Finally, he stood up and made for the house. “Gerald looks ready to pull that chicken from the grill,” he said over his shoulder. “I’m going to wash up.”
“That’s fine, dear,” Jane said, emerging from the shed, stooped and dusty, dragging a length of soaker hose behind her. “Tell Gerald I’ll be over in a bit. Don’t forget that letter from your father.”
Eli walked into the house, through the kitchen, right past the letter on the table.
A few minutes later, Eli stepped back on to the patio. Rupert, Jane’s youngest son, flipped him an Anchor Steam from the cooler. Eli opened the bottle and sank into one of the canvas chairs. “You seem like you’re getting getting into shape,” Rupert said. He grinned. “You might be able to take me now.” Rupert, a budding sprint star at Stanford, was tall and blonde, with hands that could palm a basketball and quarter-horse thighs that threatened, as he sat, to split the seams of his shorts. He was leaving the next day to start his junior year.
“I doubt I could take you in the quarter,” Eli said. He looked down at his legs, at their shape as they emerged from his shorts, tough, fibrous muscles wrapped tightly around stalks of bone. There was the scar tissue on his knee, too, and against the tanned flesh and dark hair on the rest of his legs, it looked pale and soft and smooth. Since the move to Portland, he had been getting up to run at 6:00 every morning, when the air was still dew-sweet and fresh. Most often, he would head down to the river run and lope four or five miles along its course before doubling back. But recently he had also done some tough workouts on the track at Chinook State. Eli had produced some of his fastest times in recent years, really since college. He had signed up for a 10K race toward the end of October. It was the big autumnal running event in Portland, the Seven Bridges. The race usually attracted five or six thousand runners. Eli was hoping to finish among the top one or two hundred. “If you want to put in some laps,” he said to Rupert, “not just shoot your wad the first time around, then we might have something to talk about.”
Rupert stretched out his legs and flexed his quads. The muscles rippled like band iron. He smiled at Eli, cocksure and brazen. “You’re on, bro. When I come back home in October, we’ll go a mile. Four times round the track. It’d be classic.”
“It wouldn’t be classic,” he said to Rupert. “It would be blowout.” Eli liked the idea of racing Rupert. He’d trounce him, no question. But it would also be a way to gauge his fitness for the Seven Bridges.
“You’re a sprinter, Rupert,” Gerald said, walking down the steps from the kitchen, a bowl of potato salad in his hands. “You’ll wear yourself out in the first lap. The race wouldn’t be worth the price of admission.” He turned to Eli. “There’s a guy at the front door for you. Barry Amish, or some such name. Says he knows you from school.”
“No kidding!” Eli brightened.
Jane sat at the picnic table, wiping clean her tools with a rag. “Is he a friend of yours, Eli?” she said.
“Kind of,” Eli said.
“Invite him to join us,” she said briskly. “It’s the dinner hour.”
Harry stood at the front door twirling his moustache. He wore khaki shorts and thongs. His green Triumph sat idling in the driveway. “It’s a night dreams are made of, Eli,” Harry said. He pointed to his Racing Form. “Codex in the first. Can’t miss. In a minute and ten, you’ll triple your money, earn enough to pay your rent for the next month. And then some.”
“Why don’t you join us for dinner. Jane invited you.”
“Jane. Do I know this woman, this Jane?”
Eli smiled. “I’ve told her about you, Harry. How you dictate while hanging from your boots. The horses. Your charming relationship with Dean Pritchard. She’s excited to meet you.”
“Let’s see, do I have time?” Harry looked at his watch. “I suppose I could spare an hour. It’s my policy not to refuse invitations from attractive women.”
Harry and Jane were deep in conversation about formal and tonal disintegration in the work of Kandinsky and Schoenberg prior to the outbreak of World War I. Rupert and Gerald were wondering whether Rupert’s old Chevy would make it to Palo Alto without overheating and blowing a gasket on the interstate. Eli poked at his food. The air had softened. Smoke from the neighbor’s grill mingled with theirs. He could hear older kids on the block playing football in the street. How comfortable this seemed to him, how pleasant. How different from summer evenings in Princeton when he was a boy, with family dinners on the screen porch, mosquitos floating thick, like a cloud, just outside the netting, Tobias trying unsuccessfully to be warm and convivial, his irritation mounting in the heat and humidity.
Bonnie, why does Eli get so much of the lamb? When will you learn to apportion servings according to age and stature? Lawrence, when will you repay us for that window you broke? Evangeline, don’t you think we should meet this boy you’ve been spending time with after school? Why don’t you have him for dinner? You’re not ashamed of us, are you? Tell the young man we won’t bite. And you, Eli, young fellow, when do you plan to bear down on those exercises? How can you heal that knee without putting in the work? Eli? Would you like to answer me?
Eli sighed. Gerald put down his fork. He leaned forward, extending his long frame across the picnic table toward Eli, past the plates and glasses and serving platters, as if his torso were mounted on a series of hinges. He was a huge man with a long, ruddy face. Eli found himself staring right into it. Gerald was smiling. “How do you intend to handle your new problem, professor?” he said.
“What problem would that be?” Eli said, noticing Harry and Jane, too, had stopped their conversation to listen.
“You know what I mean. Your run-in with this black fellow. Shahid. Do you think he’s really going to leave you alone? How do you plan to deal with it?”
Eli looked at Jane. “Maybe I won’t do anything,” he said. “Maybe Shahid will leave me alone.”
“Can I put this delicately?” Gerald said. “I don’t think he will. These black guys love conflict. Trust me. He’ll be on you like a scab all year if you let him.” Gerald went on. Chinook State had been heading down the wrong path with the diversity project all along, he said. The school should scrap the program. There was a lot of anger, in the community and on campus, and he had seen it coming down the pike for several years now. The idea that Portlanders were somehow better equipped to absorb an influx of rough, untutored black kids, it was ludicrous. Used to be, when he was a boy, it was hard even to find blacks in Portland, unless a person knew where to look. That was a long time ago, before World War II. But now, with Chinook State just a bridge-walk from downtown, and packs of kids roaming the streets, driving in from Northeast too. Of course it unnerved people.
“Gerald, leave the boy alone,” Jane said. “You’re just being difficult.”
Rupert laughed. “Dad freaks if he sees blacks in Eastmoreland. Kids from Albina would drive down by the carload on Halloween. He’d never answer the door. What’s their business here? They don’t belong here. Why don’t they go rob a candy store?”
Gerald was not amused. “Rupert has a healthy disregard for the wisdom of his elders,” he said to Eli. “But I would like to hear from you. You’re the expert on race relations.”
“I’m not sure what to tell you,” Eli said. In a way he could appreciate Gerald’s response, the nervous energy released by the subject of race. Gerald voiced feelings that most people would recognize to be racist, but they carried an urgency suggesting he also understood, and was personally engaged by, this problem, the big problem, the culture clash, the sense that no nation was large or expansive or generous enough to contain these two peoples, the black and the white. But Eli could not subscribe to the language used by Gerald, images, virtually microbiological, of black students as aliens and invaders. He swigged from his beer and shook his head. “I don’t know much about the diversity project,” he said to Gerald. “I don’t know too much about Shahid, either. I like Chinook State, though. I’m happy to be here. I certainly have no sense that black students pose a menace.”
“Let’s cut through the bullshit, Eli,” Gerald said. His eyes followed the stairway angling up the side of the house. “I’ve been in the ballroom with you. I’ve seen the books you’ve got up there. I have to admit they’re a welcome contrast to that damn Steinway.” Gerald glanced at his wife. “Othello up there singing every night,” he muttered. “Thought he was Paul Robeson. And that young man he claimed was his accompanist. You’re not a fruit, are you, Eli?”
“Gerald! That’s enough!”
“No, Jane. It’s not enough. I’m glad to be rid of the guy. But the point I’m making is that Eli is obviously a sober, high-minded young man. Christ, I can’t pronounce half the titles of his books, much less read them. So if he doesn’t want to tell us his thoughts about race relations, that’s fine. I just don’t want to be patronized.”
Harry stood up. “Gerald, I’m afraid I need to go,” he said. “But I’d like to throw in my two cents before leaving.”
“Go right ahead,” Gerald growled. “Everyone else is.”
“Eli is correct to keep his thoughts to himself. He’s a new professor. Race relations at Chinook State are tense right now. It would be imprudent for him to offer opinions on matters which he does not know about first-hand. The only people to whom Eli owes an open accounting are his students. And he’ll have time enough for that beginning on Monday.”
“Spoken like a true dean,” Eli said.
“Thank you,” Harry said, bowing. “I’m learning at the feet of the master, you know.” He reached for his Racing Form, which Rupert had begun to examine with interest. “Sorry young fellow,” Harry said. “I’m only allowed to corrupt one person at a time. Are you coming with me, Eli?” He pointed once again to Codex in the first race. “Rent money.”
“You willing to guarantee this horse wins?” Eli said.
“You’ll cover my bet if it loses?”
“He’s backed you into a corner, Eli,” Rupert said. “You have to go out now.”
Eli looked warily at Harry. “How about I send a bet out with you?”
“Nope. No proxy betting. I want you to experience the track in all its glory.”
“Don’t do it, Eli,” Jane said, smiling. “He’s the serpent in the garden.”
“Harry, I can’t even find time to prepare my classes,” Eli said. “You’re on your own tonight.”
Harry left, though not before telling Eli that such lame excuses wouldn’t be sufficient to deter him in the future. Jane and Rupert rose to clear the table. Gerald sat back again, the hinges folding into themselves, until he was once more a normal-looking older man, hair mostly gray now, skin gone leathery and a little bit flappy, eyes a clear blue. “It’s getting late, Eli,” he said, the gravelly voice softening. “But let me give you a bit of friendly advice. We’re all delighted to have you with us in Portland. I mean that. You’re a fine young man. But professors don’t live in the real world. You sit around the ivory tower all day, counting angels on the head of a pin, trying to decide if God is indifferent, or only perverse. That may be fun and interesting and stimulating. But it’s not real. These black guys, they’re tough, they’ve been in the streets, they’re not at Chinook State to monkey around with old history lessons or wild metaphysical speculation. You don’t face them down the first day, they will chew you up. Then they’ll spit you out. And I don’t want that to happen to you.”
Later that night, Eli wandered to the rose garden and sat on the bench, washed in moonlight. Gerald’s insistent questioning bothered him. This was what people always wanted, he thought. You’re the one who studies slavery, abolition, the civil war, they would say. Prove to me you know what you’re talking about. Validate our prejudices and fears. Tell us what we should do. It didn’t matter that Eli had no idea what people should do, that he was only a historian. In this case, it didn’t even matter whether Shahid was really black. That Shahid asserted his blackness, the assertion not separable from his militance, was enough. For Gerald, certainly, it was enough.
Jane was finishing up her evening chores in the garden. She dumped the yard waste, grass clippings, stems, buds, into the compost pile. She turned off the soaker hose. She coiled the hose like a snake, slipped it into the shed, wiped her hands on a rag, and sat down next to Eli.
“Don’t worry about Gerald,” she said. “He’s gruff. You get gruff in his business. Underneath, he’s a kind man. Even Othello. He likes Othello. They would play duets together. But he’s worried, about AIDS and all that.”
“I know,” Eli said.
Jane looked at the letter held tight in his hand.
“Did you open it?” she said.
“A few minutes ago.”
“What did he say?”
“He’s coming here.”
“To see you?”
“The history department sponsors an annual lecture. There’s nothing presigious about it. But Tobias knows someone in the department. He’s doing the guy a favor. And yes, he wants to see me.”
Jane fell back into silence, and for a moment Eli forgot she was even there.
He thought about how he had been hired the previous spring, to teach courses spanning the full breadth of Western European and American intellectual history. He had coveted the position and worked every angle to get it. When he visited the Chinook State campus in February, he aced the interview. Not more than two hours after his return to Berkeley, the phone rang. It was John Jergensen on the line, calling to offer him the position, taking care to tell him that out of 350 applicants he, Eli, had stood head and shoulders above the rest. There had been no speck of doubt in the mind of any committee member that he should receive the offer.
For all this preparation, for all this assertion of will, Tobias still attributed the outcome to an overdetermining set of providences governing the world. Tobias did not believe in God. He did believe in “history” though, undercurrents of destiny sweeping people along like so much flotsam. Tobias would say, and he did say, that Eli had in no sense chosen to teach at Chinook State. As with all human “choices,” the boy was moving there for some deeper reason, to serve a greater, or at least a yet-hidden, historical purpose. No matter how obscure that destiny might now seem, it would reveal itself in time.
Eli did not agree with his father. He believed in human choice and accountability, in the accretion of personal happiness through deliberation and action. In each human endeavor, he thought, no matter how small, there must be a craft, a technical discipline, a spirit of care and concern to complete and perfect the human will that initially only desires. In this spirit, he had sought, and obtained, his position as a professor at at Chinook State. But though he believed in this instance he had chosen freely, and chosen well, the moral clarity he wished to ascribe to this act did not materialize.
The moon hung above Eli, bathing him in irridescence. Still, he felt shadowed, by memory, by doubt. In his mind, he hung yet in the shade of the vestibule, watching Shahid sweep by the statue of Faircloth and disappear behind its mass. He wondered now about the issues of destiny and choice, whether anyone could ever fully master their past, securely lock it away. He thought about his own childhood, his attempts to rise above its pain, to construct a new foundation for his life upon that higher ground. Portland and Chinook State were part of a conscious effort to build anew. He hadn’t factored a Shahid into the calculus. But he might have guessed, had he imagined ways in which the ghost of his childhood would return to haunt him, to crash his party, he might have guessed it would assume the spectral form of a racial daemon. Eli wondered what actually had brought him to Chinook State, his own, conscious will, or something deeper and more inchoate. He wondered if his father might have been right after all about the deeper forces that govern human movements across the stage of life.
“There’s a nip in the air, tonight,” Jane said, finally. “Fall’s not too far off.” She stood up. “Let’s go in, Eli. Come join me and Gerald for a nightcap in the living room.”
These were the statistics, the cold, hard facts. Since 1989, Chinook State had admitted 6400 students into the diversity project. More than 4400 were African American. Another 1200 were Latino. The remainder were Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Southeast Asians. Administrators for the program had worked to establish relations with inner-city schools across the western part of the country. We will offer a full ride to any student who can meet these simple eligibility standards, they said. A family income under $35,000 and a B average through the last two years of high school. That was all. Poor whites did not qualify for the program. The administrators distributed slick literature describing advantages of an education at Chinook State, purposes and goals of the program, and support systems in place for students who needed help of any sort. We have dedicated ourselves, they said, with the assistance of grants from the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trust, we have dedicated ourselves to the success, both at Chinook State and in life, of historically disadvantaged minorities.
These were lies, of course, at least in the sense that the gap between the good intentions of the project’s founders and the reality of the program for its beneficiaries was vast. In three years, the percentage of minorities at Chinook State had risen from six percent to thirty-eight percent, and program administrators cited this figure repeatedly as if it were a mantra, the testament of their success. But the school was in over its head. Everyone knew it. Project students were not up to snuff academically–it may not have been their fault, but it was the truth–and the school was flat-out helpless to do anything about it. Anger and bitterness on campus had risen to flood levels. Minority students, blacks especially, believed they had been snookered, that an implacable wall of hostility and insensitivity faced them at every turn, in the classroom, in personal encounters with white professors and students, in the stores and restaurants and residential neighborhoods of the city, too.
That was not the worst of it, though. The racial slurs, the physical assaults, the threats, the black students could deal with those challenges themselves. The worst of it was more subtle and hidden, harder to grasp and define, yet far more insidious and destructive in its effects. It could only be described as the ongoing diminution of the culture and aspirations of African American students. Who could calculate the corrosive effects upon the spirits of young students of the pervasive assumption, that they were inherently limited, intellectually and academically and morally. There were the covert, masked slanders of their intelligence by professors and by other students. There was the perpetuation of cheap stereotypes, about drug use, violence, promiscuity, and laziness. There was the absence of any significant minority presence among professors and staff. There was also the opposition to curricular reform, to any desire by white students or faculty for accommodation with the diverse perspectives of a multicolored world, for the truth about historical experiences of non-white people, in the context of colonialism, imperialism, slavery, racism, and genocide.
Above all, what black students witnessed was the fear, the sly, silent antipathy, of white students. This they could least abide, the indifference of the majority of whites, in the dorms, on the quad, in and out of classrooms, thousands of them, with eyes averted, cast-down, faces blank. Ultimately, black students experienced all of this as a repudiation of their being, as nothing less than a pure hatred of their presence, of their very existence, as a malevolent spirit rushing through campus like a cold, swirling stream, like a northerly, a harbinger of damp and dark times to come.
That was the perspective of minority students on the Chinook State campus, especially the African American students. It was not the only perspective, though. In many departments, professors believed they could no longer speak openly about controversial historical or social matters for fear of being tarred with the brush of racism, of ethnocentrism and neocolonial imperialism. They could not grade according to merit. They could not maintain good order in the classroom. The sense of aggrievement was too profound among students, the cultivation of victimhood, almost as a badge of honor, too pervasive. When professors did assert their authority, project administrators were upon them in a flash. Back off, the suits would tell them. There’s more at stake in this program than in your classroom. Think of the big picture. The school is no longer a clear pane of glass, a drab dress shirt. It is a prism, a many-colored, richly textured cloth (a kente cloth!). You must teach students who were not raised with your privilege, with your ways of seeing the world. You must build bridges, go the extra mile, reach out your hand. Tolerance, forbearance, and generosity must be your watchwords.
And what of the white students? Still the numerically dominant group on Chinook State’s campus, most white students were themselves from hard-working local families. They were at Chinook State because they couldn’t afford to go out of state, or even downstate to Eugene or Corvallis. Many still lived at home. Almost all held down one or two jobs to afford school. Not a few were married and had children. Tuition rose steeply every year as the state legislature cut back on funding. So there was no sense in which most of these students felt privileged or advantaged over minorities. The diversity project angered them. Affirmative action, most believed, was a disaster. It was taken for granted that African American students, especially, possessed weak academic skills coming in to school. They received poorer grades, dropped out of college at much higher rates, and blamed everyone but themselves.
White students also resented the assertiveness of minority students on campus, the sense of entitlement, alien and strange claims couched in an assaultive language of grievance. It would have been easy to dismiss the anger of these students, however, so muted was it when compared to the bitter, barely suppressed rage of young, militant blacks on campus. Indeed, few white students were themselves aware of its dimensions and depth. What placed these students at a disadvantage, what made it hard to perceive this anger, was the lack of any intensity to the vision of betrayal, a confusion about what they had lost. For one thing, the presence of minority students at Chinook State reinforced and sharpened feelings of superiority held at a deep level by many whites. For another, most white students knew the increased numbers of blacks and other minorities on campus had only marginally changed their life prospects. With or without affirmative action, they were going to have a rough go of it. Lacking a way to sharpen its focus, their anger merely churned, at a slow boil.
On the first day of the fall term, Eli opened the door precisely at 9:00 and moved briskly toward the table at the front of the classroom. The room was crowded and noisy, and few of the students seemed to notice his arrival. Eli was aware, too, that he looked young for his age, and that it may not have been obvious at first glance that he wasn’t a student himself. He’d dispelled most of his nervousness while walking over from his office. As a graduate student, he had rarely minded this first encounter with his students. Of course, he’d never gotten completely used to the blank stares, the wall of eyes following him into the classroom, trapping him in their gaze. But he was good at connecting with the students. He would talk about himself, explain details of the course, all the while smiling, moving about the room, engaging the students as individuals, learning their names, shepherding them through the syllabus, establishing an authoritative presence with his confidence, not his commandments. By the end of the hour on that first day, the class had almost always begun to meld itself, from a collection of discrete, separate individuals into a closed, tight community.
He could tell instantly that this crew was not too interested in melding, though. Along the window, a row of buzz cuts faced Eli, meaty white guys with sandpaper heads slouching in their chairs, big in the thighs and chest, and arms like clubs. They looked homebred, their brains already soft and rotten, from high school football, from getting socked around by their old men, from television, comic books, and titty magazines.
“And I pushed that little asshole against the wall,” one of them was saying. He stroked the tattoo on his bicep, a rose winding around barbed wire. “I told the motherfucker,” he said. “I said, Little man, I’m gonna fuck you up.”
“What did he do?”
“The weenie started crying.”
The other students laughed. “What’d your old lady say?” one of them said.
“She said, Don’t scare him. He’s your little brother. He’s only eleven. Shit. I don’t care if the dude is my brother. He was getting into my knives. My hunting rifles. I swear, man, I gotta get out of my mom’s house. I can’t take it any longer.”
Another group of students, mostly black, had gathered in the back of the room, their attention centered on the shortest among them. Not much more than five feet tall, with the tightly muscled build of a featherweight boxer, he perched like a crow on the seat of a chair three sizes too large for him. He rubbed a fist across his forehead, wiping sweat from the edge of the blue doo-rag pulled tight around his skull. A thick gold chain hung from his neck. A two-fingered gold ring sat proudly on his fisted hand.
“Yo, home! Check this out!” he said to the student seated next to him, his voice a high-pitched whistle, a broad grin splitting his face. “There was these two old niggers, and they got married, but they knew they was too old to have a baby. Six month go by and she say, Honey, I be havin’ a baby. And he say, Git out of here, woman. You ain’t havin’ no baby. You too old. And she say, I be havin’ one, you wait an see. So nine month go by, and she have a baby. And this baby be one ugly motherfucker. He have a bald head and gray hair and a raggedy old moustache, and a heavy voice. She pick him up and put him on her lap and shake him. She say, Come on honey, don’t you wan’ some tiddy? And he say, Naw, I want some pussy.“
The homey laughed. “Dat yo mama, man.”
“I believe it was yo mama,” the pint-sized black student said. “And that baby she had, he yo papa!”
“Blade T! Sup, baby?”
He brushed fingertips with the Omega, a late arrival. “Brother Que Dog!” he said cheerily. “You do some stepping for us?” The Que Dog bent forward at the waist and shuffled his feet, three quick steps forward and two back. He spun to his left, hands tight against the chest, elbows out, tapdancing faster as students surrounding him began to clap out the beat. “Step it for me, baby!” Blade T shouted. “Step it for me!” Of a sudden, fast as he started, the Que Dog stopped and slipped into a chair. Blade T turned and saw Eli looking at him. His eyes narrowed. He turned back to his friends.
“Let’s move these chairs into a circle,” Eli called to the class. “Clear out the center of the room so we can all see each other.” The frat boys by the window and the black students in the back of the room stayed put. The other students shifted chairs in the center of the room off to the sides.
One of the boys by the window, his jaw slack and malformed, glanced at Eli. His eyes were deep slits. The boy held a pencil in his hand. He stared at it dumbly, as if it were a foreign object, then curled his forefinger behind it and flicked it, hard, into the center of the room. The pencil skittered along the floor. It slapped against a shoe, fashioned from kidskin, hand-stitched, triple-polished. Eli and the slack-jawed boy and the other frat boys watched the brown-skinned hand drop down to the floor and pick up the pencil. A ministerial looking young black man, wearing a three-piece suit, silk tie, silk socks, and cordovans, stood and walked across the room. He held out the pencil and smiled down at the frat boy. “You dropped this, brother,” he said, eyes bright behind his glasses.
The slack-jawed boy took the pencil. “Thanks,” he sneered. “Brother.” The other frat boys laughed and the black student, he laughed too. “You’re welcome.” He continued to offer his hand. “We haven’t met: Fiske Newton.”
The frat boy snarled and looked away. His friends jibed him. “Go on there, Jake,” said the student with the rose tattoo. “Shake that boy’s hand.”
Jake stared at the floor. “Man, go back cross the room,” he said. “I don’t want to shake your hand.”
Fiske Newton shrugged. “Whatever you say, friend.” He walked back to his chair.
From the back of the room, Blade T laughed. “What you doing there, Fiske Newton,” he said. “Trying to shake that white boy’s hand. Ye-eeeeeh. He don’t want to shake that sweaty black hand of yours. You wash up first, boy. Then maybe that white man, that white massa, be willing to touch your black hand.”
Eli walked to the front of the table and sat down on it. The buzz in the room settled. The students were now watching him. “Nice to see you all,” he said, smiling. “I’d like to welcome you to Western Culture 364, The Politics of Slavery and Abolition.” No one said anything. “All right,” he said. “Good. Let’s get to it, then.”
He called out student names from the class roster. He went through the syllabus with the students, page by page. He explained to the students that this would be a class about the connection between slavery and freedom in Western thought and consciousness. Exploration of this theme, he said, would challenge every supposition they had about the meaning of history in their own lives.
“This course is ultimately about freedom in a democratic republic,” he said. “And I’ll be frank with you about my prepossessions. My own research has persuaded me that the end of slavery, the rise of capitalism, and the emergence of new and powerful understandings of freedom were closely related. It has confirmed my sense that freedom is connected to liberation from the shackles of the past. It is about the capacity to shape, actively and consciously, the future. In the nineteenth century, the fluid, fundamentally revolutionary quality of capitalism offered the best hope for obtaining and confirming this kind of freedom. What I would like to suggest in this class is that, against this vision, slavery, which almost by definition was reactionary, stood no chance.”
This was Eli’s manner, brisk and assertive, softened by a ready smile. He had worked hard to project confidence in the classroom. It was a calculated style, honed from hours watching videotape of himself teaching as a graduate student. He had also learned to do something else in graduate school, to keep track of the students as he spoke, to file in his mind a mental image of each, their distinctive features, what they wore, how they sat, the focus of their attention through the hour. He could see now the students were not responding well to his opening remarks. They were restless and uncomfortable, and he began to worry that he was floating ideas well above their heads. Only Fiske Newton and a young white woman sitting next to him named Laurel Modigliani did not seem either threatened, put off, bored, or uncomprehending as he outlined the central themes of the class. Laurel sat in the middle of the room, a striking, intense young woman with short, dark hair and fierce blue eyes. She wore black spandex bicycle pants under baggy red gym shorts, along with a T-shirt, three sizes too large, which featured a picture of the rap group Public Enemy and the words Fight the Power. She stared intently at Eli, fingering loose folds of her shirt.
“I’m going to hold all of you to a high standard,” Eli said firmly, briefly addressing each student with his eyes, trying to lift the level of their attention through the force of his will, the intensity of his desire. “You may be here for thirty different reasons, but I want you to work as if this class is the most important thing in your life. When you are here with me in this room, my expectation is that it will be the most important thing in your life.”
“Man, lighten up,” Blade T called out from the back of the room. “Throwing all this mumbo-jumbo at us. Sounding like a coach or something. This ain’t Harvard.”
“You heard me. We’re not here to play that sort of game.”
“You’re Tracy Blade, is that right?”
“Blade T. Ye-eeeeeh.”
Eli laughed. “Is that your street name?”
“What you think, man? Just cause I’m black, I need a street name? I don’t live on no street. I got a house, just like you. Tracy Blade’s my real name. But everyone calls me Blade T. That’s just how it is.”
“You go to the racetrack,” the Que Dog said, “you discover, Blade T the man. He the Man! He be sitting so chilly on them nags, they need to wear overcoats!”
Eli smiled and shook his head, thinking of Harry. “The racetrack,” he said.
“Oh yeah,” one of the students said, laughing. “About half this school be out there on weekends. White, black. Professors, students. It don’t matter.”
“Well, Blade T might be the man at the racetrack, but in here, I’m the man.”
“You ain’t the man,” Blade T muttered. “You the fool.”
The young woman next to Blade leaned into him, whispering he should settle down. Then she smiled at Eli. “Tracy’s tired,” she said. “You know. He has to get up early to ride morning workouts.”
“I see,” said Eli. She wore a short skirt and sleeveless silk blouse. Her hair, elaborately arranged in cornrows, appeared vaguely Egyptian to Eli, like the hair of the Sphinx. She was disarmingly beautiful. “And what’s your street name?” he said.
“I’m Antoinette Duplessis.” Her voice was soft, with hints of both a Caribbean tang and lush French expressiveness. Eli heard it as a welcome counterpoint to Blade’s harsh, syncopated rhythms.
Eli glanced at the roster for the class. “I guess you are. New Orleans?”
“You right, Toni,” Blade T. said to her, as if there were no one else in the room. “I am tired. But this class, I heard it was going to be good. Except now, I don’t want to take it from this professor. He too white. He don’t know nothing about slavery. And he think he at Harvard, teaching rich white kids. Well I ain’t rich and I ain’t white.”
Fiske Newton shook his head. “You always worrying about being down for the race, Tracy. It gets in the way.” His voice deepened, the preacher in him pressing forward. “We moving to higher ground, Tracy. We beyond that.”
Blade T waved his hand at Fiske Newton. “Go on home, Fiske Newton. Always telling us to git on the good foot. Shit. You know you just the white man’s nigger.”
Laurel spoke up. “I’m in the diversity movement here on campus,” she said. “And I have to tell you, there’s a lot of anger about your teaching these courses. Nothing personal, but if this school can’t hire African Americans to teach classes on slavery, there’s a big problem, don’t you think? Students want to know, why are you here?”
Eli turned toward the window. This didn’t surprise him, that his race mattered. It hadn’t been so much of an issue at Berkeley, but there he had been only a TA, teaching courses not of his own making. He also knew there had been an effort made to hire an African American professor in the Western Culture program. The pool of qualified applicants was embarrassingly small, however, and those few who looked promising received much more extravagant offers from top-tier schools in the east. Hiring African American professors remained a touchy issue. Jergensen had warned him that students might not offer the warmest welcome. “What do the rest of you think?” he said. “Does anyone else have a problem?” He was looking now at the frat boys.
“I ain’t got a problem,” the black-haired student with the tatoo said.
“Your name is Gary, right?”
The student nodded. “I ain’t got a problem,” he said again, “because race doesn’t have nothing to do with it. If you’re a good professor, you’re a good professor. Doesn’t matter what color you are. People here worry too much about color. In my sociology class last semester, the professor had different reading lists for white and black students. Said there was no way we could learn from the same list of books.” He laughed. “Bunch of loony shit.”
Blade T squirmed like a penned-in panther. “That’s fucked up, man!” he said to Gary. “You don’t know what the fuck you talking about. Don’t have nothing to do with being a good professor. This white man ain’t done the time, he can’t rap the rhyme, you know what I mean? That’s all there is to it. All this crap about freedom. White man don’t know about freedom because he ain’t never been a slave.”
“You know, most white people aren’t racists,” Gary said, staring, lids heavy, at Blade. “But they get so tired of the bitching and moaning and finger-pointing. Why don’t you just give it a rest?” He yawned.
Blade T. popped from his chair as if it were spring-loaded. He stood facing Gary and the other frat boys, and moved toward them as he spoke. “Open your eyes and listen to me, motherfucker,” he said. “Don’t be telling us what to think. I’m from South Central L.A. And down there, it be a fucking war zone, if you ain’t heard. The brothers be smoking each other over colors, see? And ain’t no one give a shit. Y’all white folks, man, you be hopin’ we niggaz wipe ourselves out. That’ll solve a big fucking problem for you white motherfuckers. But y’all better get hip soon enough. Ye-eeeeeh. Cause you can’t keep that violence, that rage, locked up in the Hood forever. Y’all better learn to deal with that violence, or it be dealing with you, know what I mean?”
Eli saw the students in their seats by the window and Blade, crouched low like a wrestler, sliding toward them. He picked up a piece of chalk and squeezed it as he walked toward Blade. “I want you to sit down right now, Mr. Blade,” he said.
Blade glared at Eli. “I ain’t sitting down.”
The slack-jawed student, Jake, snarled. “Tell the asshole to sit down!”
“Shut the fuck up!” Blade said.
“You be quiet,” Eli called over his shoulder to Jake. “And you, Blade, I’m not going to say it again. You need to sit down.”
“No,” Blade said, looking now as if he wasn’t sure what to do.
Eli spun and threw the chalk at the blackboard, hard. The chalk splintered and fell to the floor. “I said Sit Down, Mr. Blade!”
Blade stared at Eli for a moment, then dropped his hands to his side and slid back into his seat. Frustration and pain spilled into his eyes and suddenly he only looked like a scared boy. From behind Eli’s back, Jake smiled, a sly grin curling round his face like a creeping oil slick. He pointed a long finger at Blade. “Gotcha, bro,” he whispered. Blade just shook his head.
Eli had taught mixed-race classes a number of times in graduate school. He believed his role in these classes was to guide the students to common ground, to shift attention away from group attributes, a sloppy way of thinking he always said. He encouraged them to consider the connection between history and destiny as slippery at best, one which, when taken too seriously, robbed individuals of their most human quality, the capacity to cut against the grain, to choose, actively and decisively and with a full measure of responsibility. In the classes he taught at Berkeley, he managed to push his students in that direction with some degree of success, or so he wanted to believe. It was also true, he thought, that students in a class eventually got to know each other as individuals, and not merely as representatives of a race. They tended, then, to relax and to interact in a more honest, less scripted manner. That, too, was an important dynamic in the classroom, one he liked both to witness and to facilitate as a teacher. In this class, he’d been meaning to address the race issue, anyway. The outburst from Blade provided an opportunity now to do so. He would speak to this moment of conflict, define it, require students to grapple with it, and thereby seal it. Place it on a shelf in the room. So students would be aware of it, but not cling to it.
Eli returned to the front of the room. He stood behind the podium on the table, consciously using it as a barrier to establish distance from the students and confirm his authority over them. He told the students he knew there was discontent about his appointment. He also understood black professors would teach his, Eli’s, course on slavery differently. But what did that mean? And who was to say, if Orlando Patterson, Thomas Sowell, and Leonard Jeffries taught this course, who was to say there would be any common thread to their teaching, signalling a special, racial authenticity. Did their blackness, their common lineage as descendants of slaves, certify their thoughts, their words? Would all students, especially all black students, learn equally as well from each of these professors? They had not been slaves, had they? Nor had Blade, or any of the other black students in the class, been slaves. For that matter, were the experiences of slaves, themselves, spanning centuries and continents, so universal that any slave could speak to, and for, any other? Race could only matter if history, the past, determined consciousness, belief, feeling, sensibility. Eli could not yield to the past that mythic authority over the present.
On the other hand, Eli said, Blade had been entirely correct to imply that the condition of slavery itself gave birth to modern ideas about freedom. Slaves, undeniably, were a necessary part of the process. That would be a theme of the course. Slavery provided a way to understand “unfreedom.” But slavery had existed in every century and on every continent without this way of thinking about freedom evolving, embedding itself in the consciousness of humans, and acquiring institutional form. Certainly, there were other factors that intersected with slavery in the United States to produce this powerful idea of freedom, and among the most important was capitalism.
Eli placed his hands on the podium and leaned forward. He was sorry that this rift in the class had already emerged. He was not going to assign blame, either. But he did want to make clear he would not tolerate violence and intimidation in his classroom. From anyone, he said, looking first at Blade and then at Jake, the slack-jawed student. He would also not allow students to employ racial rhetoric to harbor the implicit threat of violence or retribution for past wrongs, imagined or real. For some in the room, no doubt, racial awareness and consciousness would continue to drive their interest in the course. But that was not the only way to approach the material, Eli said, and he would not allow this racial awareness to dominate exchanges between students. Again, he wanted that to be very clear. Did the students understand?
Fiske Newton thrust forward his arms, hands outstretched, a gesture of peace. “I understand where you’re at, Professor Wheeler,” he said. “But things are different for black Americans. You white folks have to try harder to put yourselves in our shoes. Walk a mile with us and imagine how it would be.”
“I ain’t walking a mile with you,” Jake said under his breath.
Laurel Modigliani spun in her chair, her dark eyes like an arc welder shooting sparks. “People like you are the problem at this place,” she said. “Goddamned white trash, low-life, trailer-living, canned-bean eating, Geraldo-watching, sister-fucking racists.” She looked at Eli. “Do you plan to put up with this crap all term? Because if you don’t put an end to it, I’m out of here.”
Eli nodded. Jackson and the other white students by the window were a problem he hadn’t anticipated. In previous classes he’d taught, a distinctive equilibrium typically established itself, the assertiveness of black students paired with the dull silence of whites, who mostly slumped in their chairs, as if the air had been knocked from their tires. The tenor of the times had defeated these students, the view that they were collectively guilty of some global sin, trapped by the past. They sullenly accepted their fate, absorbing like sponges the surplus anger of the black students. The white students in this class seemed far less inclined to submit to any premise of ascribed guilt, though, and Jackson, especially, acted as if he wouldn’t mind at all busting a few black heads.
A frail young woman named Paisley raised her hand. She wore glasses and a starched dress with a ruffled collar. A slender gold crucifix hung from her neck. She looked pleadingly at Eli, as if she needed to say this, to concur with Eli and his hopes for the course. He was about to call on her when, quite suddenly, as if she’d seen a ghost, or a murder, she blanched, and began shrinking into herself. Eli glanced back across the room, toward the doorway.
Shahid stood there, hands at his side. He looked shorter and more compact, even, than he had during their brief engagement in McIntyre. His dense stillness once again reminded Eli of a statue, compressed from earth, rammed into a form, baked and then oiled until it glistened like polished onyx.
Everyone in the room saw him, and there was a silence, a moment of heavy waiting.
“Little X!” The Que Dog finally called out. “Yo baby, whassup? You in time for the blow-out. We already got ourselves a racial incident brewing here.”
Shahid didn’t say anything. He hadn’t taken acid-laced eyes off Paisley and now she was writhing in her chair.
“Can I help you, Shahid?” Eli said, moving a few steps closer to the door of the classroom, blocking his view of Paisley and the other students.
“I heard what you were saying just now,” Shahid said. He smiled. “It reminded me of a child, trying hard to fill the shoes of an adult, trying hard to command respect.”
“I’m not interested in your interpretation of my teaching philosophy,” Eli said. “What else can I do for you? We’re busy here.”
“I’m in this class.”
“No. I’m afraid you’re not,” said Eli, moving closer still.
“I’m in this class,” Shahid said again. He held up a slip of paper. “I’m enrolling.”
“I’m sorry,” said Eli.
“What you doing, man?” Blade said. “You can’t keep the brother out.”
“Mr. Blade, I’m not talking to you,” Eli said. “Shahid, you need my permission to enroll, and you’re not going to get it.”
“We’ll see about that, Professor. The white man has deprived my people of an education for too many years. Well, I’m going to receive an education. I need this class for my distribution requirement. And I will enroll.”
Eli was now standing in the doorway, blocking Shahid’s entrance. Only inches separated their faces. Shahid’s white cotton robes brushed against his chest. A hint of saffron and garlic drifted from Shahid’s mouth. Eli noted, too, the tendons at the soft part of Shahid’s throat. They were thick and strong, like ropes. His jaw was firm, his teeth, white and even, his nose, slightly pushed in. But Eli mostly noticed Shahid’s eyes, which were hard and direct. “You’re disrupting the class,” Eli said. “I want you to leave right now.”
“You think you George Fucking Wallace?” one of the black students was shouting. “Let the man in!”
“Get out of my way,” Shahid said, his upper body stiffening.
“We’ll talk about this after class,” Eli said to Shahid. “I don’t want a scene.”
“Well, man, you going to get a scene,” Shahid said. He stepped back. “I’m going to give you one more chance to stand aside.”
Gently, Eli swung shut the door to the classroom. He turned the lock. Shahid’s eyes widened in surprise. He jiggled the lock. “Open the door, man,” he said. “Open the fucking door.”
Eli reached above the window. He pulled the shade down.
For a moment, Shahid remained silent. Then Eli could hear him begin to walk away from the door. Eli’s body unclenched. But suddenly, Shahid had returned. “We’re not going away, Professor,” he said, his voice low and muffled through the door. “You understand, don’t you? We’re going to be a nightmare for foot soldiers of the white power structure like you. We’ll be haunting your dreams and during your waking hours, we’ll be shadowing you like the return of the repressed. Our time is at hand, Professor. We won’t be denied.” And then Shahid was gone, this time for good.
Eli shrugged. He returned to the table at the center of the room and sat down. He stared at his hands. They rattled like dead leaves. Irrationally, he hungered for a cigarette, for something to calm his nerves.
The mood in the class had turned completely sour. Eli knew this. He saw Laurel Modigliani writing furiously in her binder, notes, he assumed, about what had just transpired. He noticed, too, that Blade T now stood next to his chair, though it hardly made any difference in his height. He spoke under his breath to Antoinette, wagging his head wildly back and forth. She reached over to pat his arm, trying once again to calm him. Eli could not make out the words being exchanged, but it was not hard to guess the tone of the conversation.
In the seconds it took to take in the rest of the room, Eli also could see that some whites in the class, especially the frat boys by the window, practically floated in their chairs on a cloud of euphoria, as if they now sensed an opening, the prospect of a new kind of freedom in their own relations with black students.
Fiske Newton stood up. He fingered the buttons on his vest, looking sad. “We can’t start out like this, Professor Wheeler,” he said. “You know that, don’t you.”
Eli shook his head. Grim and monotone, he excused his students. He said they should pretend this first class had not happened when they met again. They would start over, with a clean slate. On the way out the door, the slack-jawed student, Jake, pumped his arm and grinned at Eli. “I’m gonna love this class,” he mouthed.
A shroud descended upon Eli as the classroom emptied. Through the remainder of the week, his unhappiness only deepened, drilling like a diamond-tipped augur toward his core. He sleepwalked through his classes on Wednesday and Friday, shaken by the sense that Shahid almost certainly would return to torment him. In class, the students were lethargic and unresponsive, as if they, too, were waiting for something to happen, something bigger, more fleshy, more alive than the dry bones of history Eli swept before them.
Eli could not rid himself of a vision. He pictured Shahid, squeezed into the same chair with Blade and the white diversity proponent, Laurel Modigliani, the three of them whispering, conspiring, shouting him down, mocking him. Then he would see his father, standing in the doorway, leading them in chants of outrage and derision. Tobias, the puppet-master, his nemesis. Late in the week, he spoke to Harry, seeking some way to explain his anxiety without sounding foolish. Harry didn’t really understand. “I don’t think so, Eli,” he said. “Shahid is no reformer. You wouldn’t find him anywhere near Laurel. He doesn’t approve of race-mixing. He’s an urban revolutionary, a separatist. Malcolm and the Panthers are his models.”
Eli wasn’t so sure. He imagined Black Panther Field Marshall Don Cox, sipping white wine and making polite small talk with Otto Preminger and Cheray Duchin in the parlor of Leonard Bernstein’s thirteen-room penthouse on Park Avenue. Revolutions require strange bedfellows, he mused. In fact, he could see Shahid mingling with some latter-day, post-modern equivalent of the Bernsteins. Someone in the film industry perhaps. Someone white but compliant, like Shananie Wolfe, the hot new female director in Hollywood. Her movies featured vaguely third-world heroines trapped in post-industrial, bureaucratic mazes, Kafkaesque nightmares of hacked computers and canceled identities. But no doubt, Shahid would prefer to operate within tightly organized cadres and cells. His revolutionary brotherhood would gather at night, in backstreet apartments with drawn shades.
Eli was dithering, though. The real problem was that black America unnerved him. He could smoothly articulate his discomfort. Eli was the kind of enterprising intellectual who needed to defend any opinion with a principle, as if the stated principle would somehow elide and render inconsequential the underlying impulse for that opinion. In this instance, “assimilation” provided a framework for understanding how America accommodated the racial and ethnic diversity of its population. For Eli, the nation’s great gift to its immigrants was the opportunity it provided for them to leave their pasts behind, at the waters of the farther shore. Free from the burden of history, legacies of oppression and brutality, they might then boldly face and embrace the future. Black America unnerved him because it represented the antipode to this principle. It could not be digested. Its history could not be eradicated, “whitewashed”, as it were. To this extent, blacks resisted rebirth into a status fully American, and thereby fully free.
Eli understood that the key to maintaining freedom within a capitalist democracy was to avoid a situation in which any class or group of people became the permanent doormat or mudsill for the rest of society. But this was what troubled him about the plight of African Americans in the United States. A culture of victimization, an identity politics based on weakness, not on strength, had condemned black Americans to recurring cycles of poverty and violence. For most blacks, it seemed, racism as a historical reality provided the starting point for their understanding of themselves and their status as Americans. It didn’t matter that racism had essentially been eliminated as a legal, or structural, obstacle to full black participation in the promise of American life. So long as blacks insisted on limiting the ability of individuals to define themselves in terms transcending race, the claims of the past upon the present and the future, expressed through paranoid fantasies of powerlessness and victimization, would continue to be overwhelming and debilitating. It was “history” that had trapped American blacks, far more than any ghetto or housing project, far more than the police and the Man. The unease Eli experienced personally in the company of black people extended well beyond this insight, however, plunging more deeply into his own psyche, into fears from childhood of a rage unleashed, of a world unbalanced, its axis shattered.
When Eli was young, Princeton still had a racial ghetto, a few dense blocks of dark and tiny rowhouses circumscribed by the university, the mansions of the gentry, and the Borough’s small, exclusive commercial district. This shopping quarter also buffered the black neighborhood from white ethnic enclaves, tree-lined streets where working-class Roman Catholics, Italians and Poles mostly, lived in shabby duplexes and drove beat-up Chevies. Their children were hard and tough. They did not even pretend to like black people.
Eli lived only minutes from these neighborhoods, near the university, in a stone house with a slate roof and a long curving driveway. It might as well have been an eternity, though, so far was he from comprehending the earth-crushing emotions engendered by race consciousness. It was not that Eli himself either liked or disliked blacks. He never thought about them at all. His friends, children of professors at the university, were white, and the geometric, self-enclosed rhythms of college life defined his existence. They limited his vision, preserving within him a quality unique to children of the academy, a kind of pre-racial innocence.
This was Eli, a small, bright-eyed boy, living apart from society, in a mythic world marked only by the passage of the seasons, each singular for its attachment to a collegiate sport and a set of athletic heroes. His sense of himself rose and fell like a tiny bellows, pumped by the fortunes of his Tigers. On football days, before his accident, he sprinted down barricaded streets, blocked off from traffic for the fans. He darted, like a scamp, like a squirrel, dodging right, then left, breaking tackles, finding open field, finding grace. He knew his world to be an orderly place, a place where one could measure precisely the margin of a victory or a defeat. By the size of a smile. By the number of tears. “You are a good little boy,” his father would say in his admonitory, paternal way. “But you don’t know the world.” Looking toward the west of town. Looking toward the ghetto.
Eli found out about the world in junior high school, where black and white students mixed like a bad stew. We got some nasty niggers in this dump, he and his white friends from the Township learned to say. By then, they knew from experience, from muggings and shakedowns in the hallways and bathrooms, heads slammed against doors and lockers, the smell of cheap wine and dope and hot breath close upon them. They feared the black students, who were loud and boisterous and angry, and had come to admire the Borough whites, the tough, working-class kids who smoked cigarettes and carried blades and came down hard on any nigger who messed with them or theirs.
On Fridays, the strongest, baddest white and black students fought to determine strutting rights for the following week. Almost like clockwork, the word spread through the vaulted corridors of the school, leaping from locker to locker. Johnny Miceli and Dab Carter. Duking it out after eighth period. Behind the tennis courts. Be there, man. No one knew who arranged these fights. They just happened. The final bell rang and students poured down the hill, past the baseball field and tennis courts, to an isolated corner of the school grounds. There they milled, smoking cigarettes, bantering and flirting in their rough, untender, adolescent way. Then the combatants appeared, flanked by three or four friends, and the horseplay diminished. The students, their eyes widening in awe, spread themselves into a loose circle. The white kids ranged themselves on one side of the lawn, separated by several yards from the blacks, who, because fewer in number, clustered more tightly together, drawing strength and ferocity from their nearness to one another.
At thirteen or fourteen, Miceli and Carter were both renowned for their feral vitality. But there the similarities ended. Miceli, the son of a state trooper, was a pure athlete, already topping six feet, with broad shoulders and long, powerful arms. A year before, on his twelfth birthday, he pitched a no-hitter for his Little League team, striking out seventeen batters in seven innings. He could throw a football fifty yards, but had been kicked off the junior high team after two games when the coach found him under the bleachers with his sixteen year old daughter.
Had the coach’s daughter offered herself to Carter, he too would not have demurred. But this seemed unlikely, for Carter was too short, too ugly, and too black. He did not possess Miceli’s natural grace and style. He was squat, barely five-three, with a square, pushed-in face, and he looked perpetually aggrieved. His father was serving forty-to-life for aggravated homicide and his mother was a junkie. Carter lived with his grandmother. But what he lacked in athletic ability and other natural advantages, he made up for in pugnacity and sheer orneriness. He had become the most punishing fullback in the school’s history. As a seventh grader, he accounted for eighty percent of his team’s total yardage. The sum total of the coach’s football philosophy appeared to be, Give the ball to Carter, and get the hell out of the way!
Down by the tennis courts, Miceli and Carter stood toe to toe. Carter’s jaw, like the cow catcher of some tiny, coal-black locomotive, jutting out and jamming up into Miceli’s chest. Though no blows had yet been struck, both boys breathed heavily. Who knows what they thought. Or felt. Under other circumstances, Carter would have been taking swing passes from Miceli. But they knew the drill. Here by the courts, surrounded by half the school, they were going to pummel each other into oblivion. That was their destiny, and if they did feel anything, it might have been that each punch must carry anger and pain of a life already spent, a childhood blasted. “C’mon man,” Miceli finally spoke, his voice barely a sneer. “Let’s get it on.”
By the time Eli entered high school, students had grown beyond these rituals of single combat. Or maybe they just no longer needed stand-ins to act out their own fantasies of regeneration through violence. So it seemed, at least, to Eli, who found himself staring out the window of his French class one spring morning. Through branches of a blossoming cherry tree, dozens of students, white on black, were getting it on all right, with fists, knives and bicycle chains, the air heavy with shouts, curses, thuds, screams. Other students in the class stood by Eli, their faces, drawn and pale, pressed tightly to the glass.
Eli’s teacher slammed the door to the room shut and locked it. She summoned the students back to their seats. “Allez, allez. Retournez a vos places!” But her voice trembled and the students pretended not to hear. Eli looked down at his French text, hoping the bloodletting outside was a bad dream, some perverse social commentary produced by his failure to conjugate properly the action verbs.
Later that afternoon, the dream came to flesh. Eli eased past the cordon of cops surrounding the high school. He poked his way home, cutting across the empty lot in back of the football field. Beyond the lot, a small wood separated the school from residential streets on the north side of town. A narrow path wound through the wood alongside a small creek. As Eli started down the path, he thought about the race riot. He wondered about the anger other young people, black and white alike, carried within themselves. He wondered about the special intensity of that anger among black students.
Eli passed through the wood, deep in thought, his eyes to the ground. By the time he noticed the twins, it was too late to backtrack. Eli had known Lester and Chester Dardon since the fifth grade, when the school district began to bus black students to all the elementary schools in Princeton. Their father was a maintenance man at the local country club. Their mother worked as a meter maid for the police department. The Dardon’s lived in a duplex on John Street. They were not poor. The parents were sweat-of-thy-brow Christians. They desired only to rear children whose happiness and prosperity would exceed theirs. But the taproot of racial bitterness poisoned their dream.
Lester and Chester had been cute boys, with round, alert faces and sunbeam smiles. By junior high school, though, the brightness had faded from their eyes. They hung with a rough crowd. They performed poorly in school. Something within them, within their spirits, had soured. Eli could only with difficulty understand what had happened to them, but he knew this was a common pattern among black children in Princeton. Many turned hard and bitter in adolescence. Eli’s father called this darkness passing into their souls the curse of Ham. It was, he explained to Eli, the shadow of the past.
The twins stood in a small clearing near the edge of the wood. They smoked cigarettes and stared at Eli. Two other boys Eli did not know stood with them. He guessed they were from Trenton. That was where hardcore blacks lived, young guys into rough and tumble who scared even the toughest kids from Princeton.
Eli walked toward the clearing. He would have to pass these boys to get to the street. He continued to keep his head down, hoping they might not recognize him.
“Wheeler! What’s happenin’, man?”
Eli tried to edge past them. “Nothing.”
The boys blocked his path. He had to stop and look up at them.
“Nothing!” Lester was heavy-set. A long Afro pick stuck out of his hair. A Black Power fist crested the handle. His eyes were bloodshot. “I saw you today, man. You were out there in the parking lot. I saw you, man. You were trying to light up some niggers, weren’t you?” The others laughed and crowded more tightly around Eli.
“I was in class.”
Chester, minus the Afro pick, looked just like Lester. He stared at Eli’s desert boots and laughed. “He wasn’t going to light up any niggers with those. I’d have killed the motherfucker. Anyway, he’s a crip. You a crip, aren’t you, boy?”
Eli didn’t say anything.
Chester was looking at Eli’s leg. “He ain’t a crip,” he said. “He used to be a crip.” His tone, while rough, was not unsympathetic. “You get hit by a car? I heard you got hit by a car filled with wops. Isn’t that what happened?”
“That was Chuck Blusciewicz.” He was a classmate of Eli’s who had been killed by a car that had jumped the sidewalk on Nassau Street one Saturday night a few years earlier. The driver, an Italian kid whose younger brother hung with the Miceli crowd, was stone drunk.
Chester nodded thoughtfully. Suddenly, one of the two Trenton boys spoke up. “Man, we can’t let this white piece of shit pass without paying the toll.” He laughed excitedly. “Man, you gots to pay the toll!”
“What toll?” Eli said, knowing the inevitable shakedown was about to begin.
“You gots to give us ten dollars.”
“I don’t have ten dollars. I don’t have any money.” Eli pulled the front pockets of his jeans inside out. This was the truth. His parents would not let him work until he turned sixteen. That would not be for another five months. In the meantime, he subsisted on a meager allowance, his young life denuded of adolescent pleasure. His father claimed this penury imposed discipline and built character.
Before Eli could push the pockets back into his pants, the excited boy pressed him against a tree. The boy held up a silver switchblade. He snapped the blade’s release button. “Don’t pull that shit on me. You white, so you rich. You don’t give me ten dollars, I’m gonna cut you.”
Eli eyed the blade for a moment and looked over at Lester and Chester. “I swear,” he said, “I don’t have any money.”
Lester shouted at the boy with the knife. “Man, what kind of shit you pulling, Rodney? Wheeler’s all right. Put that motherfuckin’ knife away. He don’t have no money for you.”
Rodney paused, puzzled and angered by the rebuke. As he slipped the knife back into his pocket, he turned back toward Eli. He laughed.
“You a scared motherfucker.”
“No, I’m not scared,” Eli said, his voice low. “I just need to get home.”
Chester flicked his cigarette butt to the ground. He pulled a package of Kool’s from his jacket pocket, placed one cigarette in his mouth and offered another to Eli.
“You smoke, man?”
Eli took the cigarette. Chester held a lighter in his hand. He lit his own cigarette, then shifted the flame under Eli’s.
The other boys laughed. “You got to puff, Wheeler,” Lester exclaimed. “Ain’t you never smoked before?” The other boys took cigarettes from the package of Kools. For a moment, there was silence while each one inhaled. With the exception of Eli, they were all practiced smokers. Eli tried to inhale once, but the smoke somehow found its way to his stomach. His head felt like a helium balloon bobbing on the end of a string. The sensation was not unpleasant, though, and in this lightness of his spirit, he imagined he might be friends with these boys.
Lester spoke up. “You hang out with Faith Love, don’t you? I seen you with her.”
Eli nodded. Faith Love was one of his favorite people. They were good friends. She was a big girl, with a flashing smile and quick movements. Her ease with white people and her unwillingness to wrap her blackness around her like a chador had complicated her relationships with other black students at the high school.
“She your ho?”
“I said, she your ho?” Lester seemed exasperated.
“My ho?” Eli had no idea what he was talking about.
“Your HO! You sleep with that black bitch?”
The other boys were laughing at Eli. He realized Lester meant whore.
“No,” he said. The idea of sleeping with Faith Love had never occurred to him. But now, in the swirl of the smoke and the sudden warmth rushing to his head, the notion of sex with Faith did seem funny. Her gazoongas were huge, like chocolate pudding mountains. Eli pictured them liberated from their hammock-like brassiere cups. He relished the image of himself scaling those peaks while she squealed and squirmed beneath him.
“No,” Eli said again, laughing heartily, taken in by the mirth of the moment. “But I’d love to get my hands on that black bitch’s boobs.”
And then no one else was laughing anymore.
“What you say, boy?”
“I said I’d like to get my hands on her boobs.” In the close silence that enveloped the clearing, the jocular tone he tried to adopt did not materialize. His voice sounded weak and thin.
“You call her a black bitch.” Lester no longer smiled. “You gonna have to pay that toll now, Wheeler.”
“I told you guys. I don’t have any money.”
The four black kids had once again surrounded Eli. Rodney cupped his knife in his hand. Chester’s lighter also reappeared. He flicked it and pointed with the flame toward the other Trenton boy. “Burn him,” he said quietly.
“What?” Eli sqeaked.
“I said burn Darnell.” Chester poked Eli with his other hand. “Or we gonna fuck you up good.”
Darnell was tall and thin, with a reddish Afro. Pink blotches spread across his face. He stared intently at Eli, his eyes vacant, his smile blank. He held out one arm. Translucent scar tissue covered the palm and much of his forearm.
“I can’t burn him. This is crazy.” Eli looked to see if anyone else might be coming down the path. It was empty. With his head turned toward the school, he didn’t even see Lester’s fist coming, landing hard on the side of his head, knocking him to the path. Eli’s face smashed against a rock, bruising his cheek, cutting his lip wide open. He staggered to his knees, but now Rodney was taking his shot. His kick landed high up on Eli’s rib cage, near his lungs. Eli found himself flat on the ground again, gasping for breath, waiting for the next blow. But it did not come. After twenty or thirty seconds, he pushed himself to his knees once again.
Chester stood over him. “You gonna burn that motherfucker, or we gonna kill you. You burn him. That’s what he wants. You do it.” He paused. “You do that, then you can go.”
Eli breathed heavily. His head throbbed. Tears edged down his face. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t want to cry in front of these boys. Then Rodney was on his knees next to Eli. He took the switchblade and held it to Eli’s ear. “Motherfucker,” he chirped softly, “you burn Darnell, or I’m gonna cut this ear off.”
“Get up, Wheeler,” Lester said. He offered one large, calloused hand to Eli. After a moment, Eli took the hand and allowed Lester to pull him to his feet. Darnell still stood there, his hand outstretched, like a beggar seeking alms.
Eli took the lighter from Chester and stared at it. It was yellow, a cheap disposable Bic. He flicked it once, watched the flame for a second, then let it die. He thought about running, but he knew he wouldn’t get ten feet before these boys caught him. He flicked the lighter again. Slowly, he moved it close to Darnell’s outstretched hand. He looked into Darnell’s eyes. They were a dark grey, with flecks of black and red.
“Why do you want me to do this?”
“Cause it feel good.”
Eli slid his hand under Darnell’s palm. He lifted the flame until it was about six inches from Darnell’s skin, near enough to feel warm, but not do any damage.
“That’s not good enough, Wheeler. You got to burn him.”
Eli moved the lighter closer to Darnell’s hand. The flame licked his palm, flattening out where it met the flesh. Darnell’s body stiffened. He smiled. Eli’s own arm quivered, but this time he did not lower the lighter. A sweet putrescence now filled the air. Darnell closed his eyes. His head jerked and writhed. A bit of smoke filtered through his fingers. The other boys stood quietly, transfixed by the sacramental power of the ritual.
Eli held the lighter to Darnell’s palm for fifteen or twenty seconds, his own hand soppy with sweat, cheeks dampened by tears. Suddenly, he turned toward the creek and pitched the lighter into the water. He spun back toward Darnell and the twins.
“There!” he cried. “Are you happy? Did I burn you enough?”
Darnell turned his palm over and stared at the gelatinous pulp in the center of his hand. He grazed it gently with the fingers of his other hand.
Eli sank to his knees, lunch slipping from his stomach like an eel, sliding brown and silken onto the trail, into bushes by the edge of the creek. Eli crouched upon all fours, his face close to the soil. He could not bear to lift his head. He could not bear to see the melted hand, and the tenderness of Darnell’s touch upon it.
Rose City Racecourse occupies the forested spit of lowland where the Willamette River kinks, just south of the St. Johns Bridge in North Portland. Along the west bank of the river, the water runs brisk and true, flowing under the steel spans of the bridge and continuing north for several miles before sluicing into the Columbia. Along the east bank, however, the Willamette appears to curl back upon itself, the slope here cut deep and reinforced with pilings and piers and levees, survivals of the decades prior to construction of the bridge, when steamships, barges, and ferries trafficked the waters. At this point, the water idles by, deep and dark and still-seeming, shying away from the shadows cast by the bridge, creeping instead into a narrow inlet that stretches to the south and east for nearly a mile before terminating in marsh.
Horses run at Rose City every year from late August until April. It is a winter track, sand with a base of clay, engineered to soak up torrents of rain without turning into a bog. In the evening, the fog sometimes rolls in from the river, obscuring the sand oval. When that happens, horses disappear into a thick, impenetrable mist around the first turn. On other occasions, ice storms freeze the track solid, and then the horses can neither train nor race. But most of the time, the rain simply packs the sand granules more tightly together, as waves do to the sand on a beach.
A huge expanse of glass encloses the grandstands at Rose City, protecting patrons from exposure to the elements. But it can be a hazardous business for the horses. Cheap horses run at Rose City, horses not bred well enough, not fast enough, and not healthy enough to run at the classier California tracks, or even in Seattle, where Longacres has also fallen on hard times. They race for meager purses. And they race often, because this is the only way owners and trainers can hope to make money. For this reason, they may be asked to run upon a poor and unforgiving surface when they are not fit. Horses break down at Rose City. They shatter cannon bones and explode stifle joints and rip apart flexor tendons and some die on the track. It is a rough enterprise.
No hint of this darkness troubled the racecourse on Saturday afternoon, though. There Eli and Harry stood, squinting and blinking by their table in the Turf Club. Sunlight poured in through the vast windows that fronted the grandstand. Rising above the firs and cedars, Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helens gleamed and sparkled in the distance. Horses straggled through the grove of conifers and across the infield, heading toward the paddock for the first race of the day. A red farm tractor pulled a harrow around the dirt oval. In the center of the infield, ducks swam proudly across a pond.
Harry had called early that morning, around 8:00. “I have some good news and some bad news,” he said.
“I guess I’ll take the good news first,” Eli said, standing by the coffee machine in the kitchen. A terry robe barely sheathed his loins, but Gerald was still asleep and Jane, who habitually rose before six, had already swept through the kitchen and left to run errands. Eli cradled the phone against his ear while he poured coffee into his mug.
“Well, let’s see,” Harry said. Eli could hear him manhandling the newsprint. “There’s Cartbeforthehorse in the first. That’s good news. Mendacious in the second. Very good news. Culture Vulture in the third. I could go on.
Eli laughed. “You want me to bet a horse called Mendacious?”
“Absolutely! It’s a dream card, Eli.”
“How many of these sure things is Blade T riding?”
Harry checked his Form “Three of them. He’s on Cartbeforethehorse in the first, and a few other horses I like quite a bit later in the day.”
“What do you think of him as a jockey? You know he’s not much as a student.”
“Probably just as well. You get a jock up on a half-ton horse rattling down the backstretch at forty miles an hour, you don’t want him to be thinking about Kant and Hegel. You just want him to fucking ride ride ride. Blade T’s a good jockey. At least compared to the other mosquitos who ride at this dump. He’s serious about it. His only problem is he whips his horses a little too vigorously. At least for my taste.”
“What else did you want to tell me?”
“There’s still the bad news. Shahid’s in your class as of Monday.”
Eli sipped his coffee and stared bitterly out the window.
“You still there?”
“Where the fuck’s the administration on this, Harry? He’s going to ruin the course. You know that.”
“There’s nothing you can do about it, Eli,” Harry said. “Shahid got a lawyer. The lawyer thinks his civil rights have been violated. But Shahid says he’ll forget about it if T. State simply allows him to enroll. I don’t think you’ve got much choice. The school isn’t going to back you up on this one.”
Eli watched bettors pour into the grandstands, a surge of large, fleshy men and women, their eyes bright with anticipation, their talk brash and boastful.
An enormous black woman lumbered down the aisle, her pink polyester shorts busting at the seams. She waved cheerily at Harry.
“Yo ho, Jolene!” Harry returned the wave.
“Harry, honey,” she panted. Her breath escaped in sharp bursts as she fumbled in her purse for her cigarettes. “You have to give me some winners, baby. My numbers came up empty yesterday. You should have been here. There was funny stuff going on, you know what I mean?”
Harry, seating himself, laughed. “There’s always funny stuff going on, sweetheart,” he said.
Outside, near the rail of the track, a little man, his head and face swathed in dirty gauze bandages, peered into one of the trash receptacles. He pulled handfuls of discarded tickets from the trash bin, yesterday’s detritis. He stuffed the tickets into a plastic bag. Eli watched silently for a moment, then turned his attention to the first race of the day in his Racing Form.
Harry, too, was silent. Only fifteen minutes remained until post time. He was preoccuped with the immediacy of the task at hand, his ritual of preparation. He piled the table high with the tools of his trade, binoculars (for watching races and replays on the television monitors hanging from the girders), notebooks (for recording information about each race and each wager), multicolored pens (each color possessed a different meaning), old programs (containing the running lines and trip notes from previous races), and stacks of old Racing Forms. Finally, when everything was in order, he smiled at Eli. “Let’s kick some butt, boy. Tell me what you see in this first race.”
Harry had introduced Eli to the handicapping basics in the car.
Rule One. Narrow the field to legitimate contenders, horses that have a shot at finishing in the money.
“This is the easy part,” Harry said. “Here classical handicapping techniques apply most directly. You’re looking for class and consistency. I put a twist on the process, though. At this point, I am looking more for horses to throw out, horses that really have no chance.”
Rule Two. Focus on the human element.
“The horses are like the athletes on a baseball team. You can’t win without them, but they are not making the important decisions that enable the team to contend for a title. The brains of the outfit. That’s what you monitor. On a baseball team, the manager and general manager make those crucial decisions. In a horse race, it’s the trainer and jockey. You can throw out some horses at this stage because of what you know about the personnel. That this trainer overraces his stock. Or this jock just switched agents. By the same token, some of these guys are pure class. They’re winners. They’d be winners anywhere.”
Rule Three. Establish motivation.
“Why is Old Gluestick running in this particular race today? Why did this jockey elect to ride him? What is the point of this particular workout pattern? When you perform this analysis for every entry in the race, you should have a pretty good idea about the contenders.”
Rule Four. Consider the odds.
“How does everyone else evaluate the race? The crowd will figure out the important stuff. The betting favorite wins a lot of the time. But most people act like herd animals. And they die by degrees. Over time, you cannot make money playing favorites.”
Eli had looked at the entries for the first race in the Form. He had also watched the post parade, and there he’d seen Blade T, in blue and white silks, perched atop Cartbeforethehorse, chatting up the pony girl, that same big grin splashing his face like sunshine. The race was for maiden claimers, horses that had never won a race. Cartbeforethe horse was an obvious selection. She had finished second in her last race and was running against many of the same horses again. The crowd had already bet the horse down to even money. But Eli had decided he liked a horse called Roller Blade. This horse finished fourth in her last race. But she’d made a big run in the stretch, closing to within two lengths at the finish. Eli thought Roller Blade might catch the frontrunners this time.
Harry saw no way Cartbeforethehorse could lose. He planned to key her on top with one other horse in both his exacta and daily double bets. But he did not conceal his surprise, dismay even, that Eli might squander his money on Roller Blade.
“Christ, Eli. What rock did you look under to find that horse? I don’t want to rain on your post parade, but you’re looking at a career maiden. And the horse is jumping in class!”
“I thought she made a good effort last time out.”
“No early speed, Eli. No heart. No class.” Harry had already dismissed the horse. He was busy now, writing down his own bets, an elaborate scrawl of numbers, slashes, and dollar signs. “Cartbeforethehorse wins the race. That’s clear enough. But what finishes second? What did you think of She’s Mexican?” Harry didn’t wait for Eli to answer. “She’s dropping from straight maiden company. Decent figs. Good jock. Solid trainer. A bit of early speed. Blinkers on.” Harry glanced at the tote board. At five-to-two, She’s Mexican was the second choice of the bettors. “I hate to play the chalk, but the other horses in this race might as well be three-legged donkeys.” He finished writing and smiled at Eli. The decision had been made. They would both play Cartbeforthehorse and She’s Mexican. “Time to print some money, young fellow. Let’s hit the windows.”
Harry waited in line at a window for high rollers, mostly older men wearing Stetson hats, string ties, Tony Lama boots, hand-tooled money belts. They smoked fat cigars. They spoke slowly and easily, as if it didn’t mean much, one way or another, whether their horses came in. But there was Harry, too, with his Yankees baseball hat, and behind him was another member of the faculty, Aviel Schoenberg, who taught linguistics. So it’s true, Eli thought. About people from Chinook State at the track. But where are the students? Schoenberg and Harry spoke casually, with confidence, about the horses they favored in the first race. Schoenberg nodded in Eli’s direction. Fresh meat, Eli thought he heard Harry say. The two men laughed.
Eli’s line was longer and louder. Nervous energy snaked through it like an electric current. These were the small-time players, the weekend fans. They didn’t want to miss a bit of the action. But the line had stalled, and the bettors in front of Eli had begun to stamp their feet and murmur.
Dirty Shirt was the problem. Harry had warned Eli about him. So named because he wiped his nose on the tails of his shirt, Dirty Shirt didn’t just visit the betting windows. Like a one-man army, he occupied them. His method was to slouch before the clerk and relay his bets individually, instead of in the singsong shorthand, using combinations of numbers, favored by most bettors. He might spend five or ten minutes at a window, while fans in line behind him stewed.
“You want to know what a piece of shit Dirty Shirt is?” Harry had said to Eli. “Two years ago, my betting partner, George Kleinberg, got shot in the parking lot. He’s lying there in an ocean of blood when Dirty Shirt slinks over and steals his Racing Form. Can you believe it? There’s blood and dirt all over the newsprint. Dirty Shirt figured, Kleiny’s probably finished, he won’t even notice. The funny thing is, Kleiny did notice.” Thinking about this, Harry laughed. “He’s lying there with his guts like mashed potatoes, but he sees Dirty Shirt pilfering his Form and starts yelling bloody murder. Because he might be shot up, and he might be going to the hospital, but he’s still going to make goddamn sure he sends out his bets for the next day. Now that’s a horseplayer for you!”
Standing in line behind Dirty Shirt, a sawbuck balled in his fist, Eli tried to understand someone who would snatch the Racing Form from a wounded man. Looking up and down the line, he had little trouble believing the whole crowd would be capable of this. They all looked like candidates for a police lineup. And now they were getting pissed. The delay didn’t trouble Eli so much, though. Harry’s unwillingness to consider Roller Blade had shaken his resolve about betting the first race. He stared at his Form, trying to decide. In his mind, the horses no longer pranced around the track, creatures of flesh and blood and bone, of need and desire. They had become ciphers, strings of numbers, pale abstractions on a strip of greasy newsprint. Eli figured Dirty Shirt would only be saving him money if the delay prevented him from wagering on the race.
The man in front of Eli had other ideas, though. He was already drunk. He held a large cup of beer in one hand and a Form in the other. The bottle blonde by his side clutched his arm, her nails gripping his flesh like grappling hooks.
“Joey, Joey,” she whined. “We’re not going to make it before the race starts.”
“Yeah, I know,” Joey said. “Let me see what I can do about it.” He swilled his beer, crumpled the cup, and tossed it to the floor. He leaned forward and tapped Dirty Shirt on the shoulder. “Hey, buddy. Listen up. People are waiting.”
“It won’t do any good,” the man behind Eli said. “He’ll just dig in his heels.”
“No he won’t.” Joey placed one ham-sized paw on Dirty Shirt’s shoulder and spun him around. “You moron,” he said. “Didn’t you hear me tell you people are waiting? Show some goddamn courtesy, man!”
Dirty Shirt glanced at Joey, then looked the girlfriend up and down. He leaned into Joey, as if to share a delicious secret. “I might be a moron,” he said. “But at least I’m not fucking one.”
When security guards finally subdued and dragged away these two Knights of the Roundtable, Eli found himself at the window. Horses for the first race had begun to file into the starting gate. Eli had felt amused contempt for the urgency of bettors ahead of him in line. But anxiety now crept upon him like a cat. He still didn’t have a clue which horses to play.
The clerk at the window smiled at Eli. She sighed. “You meet the nicest people at racetracks, don’t you, Professor?”
“Jeez! Antoinette. What are you doing here?”
Antoinette laughed. “This is how I support myself. What’s your excuse?”
“A friend dragged me out,” Eli said. He looked around. “I saw Avi Schoenberg over there. Where are all those students the Que Dog was talking about?”
“Oh, they can’t afford the Turf Club. Mostly, you’ll find them in the grandstand and outside along the rail.” Antoinette stared curiously at Eli, as if she was still wondering what he was doing at the racetrack.
Eli, glancing down at his Racing Form, thinking he’d better make up his mind about his bet, suddenly found himself staring into decolletage. Racetrack management required mutuel clerks to wear outfits with a vaguely Old West flavor. The men each wore a cowboy hat, made cheap out of cardboard, and slung arms through a buttonless black vest. The women wore hats, too, along with a facsimile of a buckskin dress, fringed and, on the younger women at least, cut low at the shoulders. Eli supposed he’d never seen such a cheap effort to manufacture atmosphere. Nonetheless, his eyes kept straying from his Form.
Antoinette pushed her hat far back on her brow, folded her arms across her chest and smiled at Eli. “I didn’t choose to wear this dress, you know,” she said.
“I’m sure you didn’t,” he said. “It’s quite fetching, though.”
She kept smiling at him. “Aren’t you going to bet? The race is about to start.”
From a monitor mounted on the wall, Eli also noticed the last of the horses filing into the gate. Quickly, he thought. Make the bet. Any bet. “Ten dollars to win on Cartbeforethehorse. The two horse.”
“Is that all?” Antoinette’s fingers rested lightly on the tote machine, ready to record the bet and print the ticket.
“Wait! Make it a win on the four.” Eli was back on Roller Blade.
“Mmmm,” she said. “I like a man who knows his mind.”
Back at the table, Harry stared glumly at the track. Three other men had seated themselves there since Eli had left to make his bet. Harry was not talking to them, though, and it was hard for Eli to tell what he was thinking.
Before the race, Harry told Eli that She’s Mexican would probably sprint clear of the field. He believed Cartbeforethehorse would track the pace set by She’s Mexican down the backstretch, pull up alongside her on the turn, and gain the lead in the homestretch. But Blade T gunned Cartbeforethehorse from the gate and the two horses hooked in a speed duel. The blistering early pace exhausted She’s Mexican, the less classy of the two horses, and she faded badly down the lane. With Blade T hand-riding hard from the gate, Cartbeforethehorse tired too, and Roller Blade, of all horses, nipped her at the wire. The career maiden, absent a victory in seventeen lifetime starts, benefited from fast early fractions and roared past the front-runners in the stretch. She paid thirty-six dollars and change for the two-dollar win ticket.
“Fucking Blade T!” Harry said to Eli as he strolled up. “He can’t rate a horse to save his life. That little move of his at the gate just cost me two bills.”
“That little move of his at the gate just made me two bills,” Eli said, not wanting to gloat, but barely able to contain his pleasure.
“What?” Harry cocked an eyebrow. “You played Roller Blade?”
Eli smiled at Harry. “I bet ten dollars to win.” Thinking, this is the candy Harry comes here for, this pure feeling. The chaos of the Form, the riot of numbers pulling him this way and that, had resolved itself, had come into focus. He’d taken the risk. He’d wagered, not with Harry, but with his heart, his instincts. And not two minutes later, he’d received his reward. The pile of crisp twenties now folded into his wallet. Antoinette teasing him. “This is your lucky window,” she said. “You keep coming here to make your bets.”
“Well, way to go, guy!” Harry stretched his palm toward Eli. “A homerun in your first at bat! This is Eli’s first time at the track,” he said to the other men seated at the table. “He’s the bright new star at T. State. And not too shabby as a handicapper, it turns out.”
Harry introduced Eli to his older brother, Jordan Hamish, his betting partner, George Kleinberg, and a younger man named Seb Kroll. Eli saw that Jordan didn’t look much like Harry. He figured to be about fifty years old. His hair, while curly, was brown, not red. Jordan wore ill-fitting shorts and an unevenly buttoned cardigan sweater, at least one size too small. His stomach heaved against the buttons, threatening to pour out through the gaps between them. Eli noticed, too, that Jordan was rocking his head back and forth over the Racing Form, fidgetting, drumming the table arhythmically with his fingers. He was murmuring to himself, not words but numbers. Every few seconds, he stopped to write what looked like immensely long calculations on a sheet of paper.
Jordan must be retarded, Eli thought. Harry’s introduction had been even less than perfunctory, however, and since no one else seemed about to volunteer any information, Eli turned toward the other two men and nodded. Kleinberg, of course, he already knew about. He was heavily set and rough-hewn in appearance, his face a roadmap of experience. He appeared to be about forty years old. Harry had told Eli more about him during the drive to the track. They were both Jews from New York, kindred spirits really, out on the great Presbyterian frontier. Kleinberg was a professional horseplayer. Some years ago, he left New York, where competition amongst the hardcore betting set is fiercest of all. He hopped from racetrack to racetrack, eventually landing in the Northwest. He expected the players on this regional circuit to be rubes and high-priced winners to be ripe for the plucking. The players proved to be more savvy than he had expected. But he stayed on anyway, eeking out a living, waiting for the big pop on a Pick Six that would set him up for good.
Eli had also heard about Seb Kroll. He was the great-grandson of the timber baron who built the track during the 1930s. He had recently graduated from Harvard, where he majored in history and philosophy. He drove a burgundy Jaguar, dated beautiful women, and loved to bet on the horses. Bet big, Harry emphasized. Bet wild, too. He was all over the joint with his handicapping. One day, he’d be playing the early speed. The next day, he’d focus on all the horses dropping in class. According to Harry, Seb simply had too much money for his own good. It robbed him of discipline and accountability.
Seb greeted Eli warmly. He was tall and thin, a sharply pointed nose adding length to an already reedy, bird-like neck. He wore a Lacoste shirt, Khaki Dockers, and canvas boat shoes. “I’ve heard about you, Wheeler. And your old man, too. He’s a hoot. I’d like to chat historiography with you at some point. Not now, though. Cassandra’s got me on the short leash.” He looked over his shoulder and waggled a hand at the blonde seated three tables away.
Cassandra was smoking a cigarette. She looked bored beyond belief. Seb stood up and sighed. “We went at it all night,” he said to Eli. “The sex was to die for, but she didn’t get enough sleep.” He sighed. “Hence, she didn’t want to drive here this afternoon. Hence, she wanted to go to the Multnomah Club for a massage. Yadayadayada. But what was I supposed to say? Harry may have told you. I’m in the fourth month of an exciting longitudinal study of early speed horses coming off layoffs. Of course, I need to be out here.” Seb lowered his voice and spoke confidingly in Eli’s ear. “The results so far are actually quite interesting. I think we have a few minutes before the post parade. Let me tell you about them.”
For the moment, Seb had forgotten again about Cassandra. He droned on, while Eli shifted from one foot to the other. Harry watched this exchange for a minute. Finally, he rolled his eyes and shuffled his chair closer to Jordan’s. He leaned into Jordan’s shoulder and whispered into his ear. Jordan pointed in the Form to a horse running in the next race and laughed. Harry clapped him on the back and laughed too. George Kleinberg, who exchanged a pleasantry with Eli before Seb corralled him, had also returned to a concentrated study of the Form. When Seb finally wandered back to his table, Kleinberg looked over at Eli, his big, bluff face red with irritation. “Don’t pay any attention to Sebby,” Kleinberg said. He nodded toward Harry. “You want to see a master in action, there’s the guy to watch.”
The afternoon lengthened. Losing tickets littered the table and tumbled to the floor. Cardboard cartons, greasy paper wrappers, and emptied cups accumulated on the table. Smoke from surrounding tables filled the air, causing Harry and Eli to squint through a thickening haze. The mood at the track had changed. The levity and the sense of anticipation had fled. Eli looked at Jolene. A river of sweat poured down her neck. — sees students, professors, maybe even Pritchard; student with rose and wire tatoo, Gary; Eli had definitely seen Gary, more than once, in fact. It turned out a lot of Chinook State students did hang out at Rose City on weekends, professors, too. Eli once thought he’d even seen Pritchard there, although he couldn’t be sure, through the haze of smoke. Eli generally didn’t run into students in the Turf Club. But he saw them in the parking lot on occasion, and whenever he cared to look, he could find them milling around in the grandstands, or down along the rail.
Harry proved true to his word, though. He did not play another favorite the rest of the day. Throughout the afternoon, he attacked the races, confident of his ability, through sheer force of will, to obtain outcomes producing monstrous payoffs. He seized scraps of information from here and there. An abundance of early speed, a horse with a bad post position last race out, a jockey with a tendency to fan his steeds too wide on turns, another horse that had repeatedly steadied in its previous race. With them, he constructed a vision of the upcoming race that always seemed pregnant with prophecy. He never doubted himself, and argued on behalf of his choices with the certitude of the born optimist. Still, as the afternoon began to wane, Harry, for all of his pronouncements about the right way to play this race and the wrong way to play that race, had yet to cash a winning ticket.
Eli, however, had crushed the first four races. He possessed a supple mind, and he quickly grasped the fundamentals of handicapping and wagering. Once he understood what the information in the Form meant, he figured out how to relate variables such as speed, consistency, and class, and to imagine simple outcome scenarios. Betting progressively larger increments and constructing gradually more sophisticated wagers, Eli managed by mid-afternoon to parley the forty dollars he brought with him to the track into well over three hundred dollars. Harry was now salaaming him after every race, while Seb Kroll, ever alert for a new angle, had begun to sidle by their table a few minutes before post time.
Eli almost smiled at it all. He had labored for years on his dissertation, in a solitude of his own making. That had been his choice, the conscious decision to renounce desire and impulse, to apply himself systematically to a task. The vast reservoir of energy he directed toward the project distinguished him from his peers. They might work until eight or ten at night and called it a good, productive day. The next morning, they would take off for the beach. Eli would wrestle with a page, with a paragraph, until two or three in the morning, and then force himself back into battle again four or five hours later. That was the difference. The others had interests. They had lives. Eli did not. He was wrestling the bear. He was fighting his shadow. It was not a salubrious affair. It was a war.
The prodigious capacity for work reminded some of his father. Eli knew better than anyone how right they were. But he also knew the day would come when his life would change, when, the carapace outworn, he would step, as it were, from dissertation to daylight, to a Nietzschean type of health or completion. The metaphor of the chrysallis did not elude him. He entered graduate school as a caterpillar, as an unlovely creature, low to the ground. He would emerge as a butterfly.
But somehow that was not how things worked out. Kelly entered his life midway into graduate school, almost at the moment he began his dissertation. He fell into her arms, grateful for what she offered him. The promise of happiness. His connection to her, his time with her, that had been his meat, his marrow. But the promise had not been fulfilled. He had remained unhappy, angry, embittered, and three years later, she left him.
The issue, he began to realize over the summer, concerned the meaning of freedom. His freedom. He remained imprisoned. And nagging doubts about the move to T. State, to any school, really, drew upon this awareness. The academy had become for him a hall of mirrors. Tobias was the man he saw in every reflecting surface. But now, here at the track, without fully understanding why or how, Eli felt a strange and exultant sense of release. It was as if, when he and Harry squeezed through the doors of this building, someone or something cut right through the tether binding him, to his past, to his family, to whatever ailed him. In that first race, he witnessed the wonderful, rhythmic surge that carried Roller Blade past horse after horse down the stretch. And then he knew, for the first time, what it meant to soar.
Soon enough, the eighth and feature race was upon them. Twenties bulged Eli’s wallet. He wedged the excess, smaller bills balled like pellets, into the corners of his front pockets. Into his shirt pocket, too. He guessed he’d earned close to five hundred dollars on the day. By contrast, Harry, still winless for the afternoon, must have been down more than a thousand dollars. Eli marveled. The day had been a lifeless desert for Harry, so far as the handicapping had gone. But his confidence remained unshaken, his mood upbeat. “Okay, men,” he said, as the horses completed the post parade for the eighth and cantered out around the clubhouse turn. “It’s bailout time.”
Eli scanned the Form and saw only one horse with more than a remote chance of winning. Itty Bitty Too Too had shipped in from Longacres, the Seattle track. This stakes-placed horse had dropped into a soft allowance field here at Rose City. As it turned out, Blade T had the mount. Money was cascading in on the horse. Itty Bitty Too Too, it seemed, would be the bailout horse for a lot of people.
“Fuck that shit,” Harry snorted. “The nag hasn’t raced in three months. She’s shipping. She’s a sprinter, not a router. Blade T’s going to be pounding the shit out of her. And the bitch always gives up the lead around two turns anyway. I’m looking elsewhere.”
Seb Kroll wandered to the table, grinning slyly. It had also been a long day for him. Cassandra had demanded that he call a cab for her after the fourth race. But Seb didn’t care. He pointed to Itty Bitty Too Too in his Form. “This is the one, gents. You know my system for layoff horses with early speed. This pretty little filly meets all the requirements for a smasher! This old barn is going to have to go into hock to pay me!”
A few minutes later, the plebes in the grandstand roared. The numbers on the tote board had gone berserk. Sebby had bet $100,000 to show on Itty Bitty Too Too.
“Sebby’s a goddamned fool,” Harry said. “He knows the track has to pay him a minimum of five percent, even if the mutuel pool won’t cover his payoff. But I think the horse is going to finish out of the money.” His eyes glowed. “Eli, the show prices are going to be astronomical.”
Harry pointed to another horse in the Form, Betsy’s Baby, and asked Jordan to perform some calculations. A moment later, he grabbed Eli’s sleeve. There were only four minutes to post. “This is the horse,” he yelled. “Bet her to show! Bet her to win! Key her in your exactas and trifectas. Key her with these two horses. Job and Squeeze The Charmin. Let’s take this Baby to the bank!”
Harry borrowed money from both Eli and Kleinberg. This would be his biggest bet of the day. For his part, Eli did not see how Itty Bitty Too Too could lose. But the horse was going off at one-to-two. He’d join Harry and chase the flyer, Betsy’s Baby.
Eli had visited Antoinette’s window throughout the afternoon, reluctant to disturb the winning rhythm into which he had fallen. By the eighth race, her sparkle had faded, worn down by the demands of the bettors, the smoke and the noise, the excrescence of losing. But her face lit up when she saw Eli at her window.
“Hello, there! I’m not sure I have any more good luck to give you.”
“That’s okay,” Eli said, anxious to get back to his table before the race started. “I think you’ve given me enough for one day.” He shoveled two twenties under the security bar and reeled off a string of bets on Betsy’s Baby. Mindful of the imbalance in the show pool, he even placed a ten-dollar show bet. “If the favorite runs out of the money, I’ll split the winnings on this ticket with you,” he said.
Antoinette shook her head. “I’d love to,” she said. “But we’re not supposed to bet. And my supervisor is standing right behind me.” She reached under the bar to pat his hand. “Save it for your girfriend.”
Betsy’s Baby was a deep closer. Jordan’s pace figures suggested she would be able to run at the speed late in the race. For her to do so, however, she’d need to be very kindly rated by Blade. Additionally, one or two of the other horses would have to challenge Itty Bitty Too Too before she reached the clubhouse turn.
That was the scenario. But Itty Bitty Too Too blew out of the gate lengths ahead of the field. Betsy’s Baby lagged back, ambling around the first turn, trailing the rest of the field by at least ten lengths. Eli noted Sebby’s smug smile. Seb and Harry had exchanged bitter words before the race began.
Harry, his binoculars trained on the field, tracked the horses into this first turn. The race was not setting up right, and Harry’s muttered stream of curses as she pulled further ahead of the field would have curdled new milk. He smiled, though, when the announcer called out the fraction for the first quarter mile, a lightning fast twenty-two and two.
“Yes! I knew it!” Harry continued to watch the race through his binoculars. But he could not forbear from exulting to Eli out the side of his mouth. “The nag’s too fresh. There’s no way she can hold this pace and win.”
Eli wondered. Heading into the backstretch, Itty Bitty Too Too seemed, if anything, to be picking up steam. She had stretched her lead to four lengths. But when Harry heard the half-mile fraction, he put the binoculars down and looked over at Eli. “Race over,” he said emphatically. She can’t carry twenty-two and two and forty-five and three to the finish.”
The horses galloped down the backstretch. Itty Bitty Too Too maintained her lead. However, as Harry pointed out to Eli, Blade T was at this point sitting anything but chilly. Going into the far turn, he began to apply a vigorous hand ride. His arms stroked up and down the horse’s neck, trying to squeeze every last bit of juice from her, evidence to Harry that she was tiring.
Squeeze The Charmin and Job inched up on Itty Bitty Too Too around the far turn. As they entered the homestretch her lead had diminished. The fraction for six furlongs suggested a horse rapidly running out of gas. But Betsy’s Baby had only now started to rally, and she still trailed the field by a good eight or ten lengths.
Bedlam reigned at Eli’s table. Squeeze The Charmin and Job pulled up alongside Itty Bitty Too Too halfway down the stretch. Blade T had finally unholstered his whip and started to lay into Betsy’s Baby, and now she leapt forward as if struck by a lightning bolt. With a furlong to go, she had pulled within four lengths of the leaders. Squeeze The Charmin and Job both inched ahead of Itty Bitty Too Too. Blade T took his whip to the filly with the left handed chopping motion for which he had become locally famous. But her exhaustion was evident to all. The only question now concerned Betsy’s Baby. Would she get up in time?
A hundred yards remained in the race. Squeeze The Charmin and Job strained toward the finish. Nothing but a head bob separated these two horses. Betsy’s Baby flashed past Itty Bitty Too Too and zeroed in on the new leaders. Fifty yards remained. She still needed to make up two lengths. Thirty yards remained. One length now separated the three frontrunners.
Eli, Harry, Kleinberg, and Jordan roared and stomped with excitement and delight. Eli heard himself yelling. “Go Betsy! Go Betsy! Squeeze That Charmin, Girl! Squeeze That Charmin!” Ten yards to the finish. Betsy’s Baby pulled nearly even with the other horses. “Yeee-Hahh!” Harry slammed his hand on to his hip. “Roll on Now, Gal, Roll On Now!” He could have been riding the horse himself.
At the wire, Betsy’s Baby surged past the other horses. Photos confirmed her victory, and when the tote board flashed the official results, Eli’s table erupted once again. Knocking Itty Bitty Too Too out of the race had indeed produced titanic show prices. Betsy’s Baby paid more than twenty-two dollars to win. But she offered an extraordinary fifty-six dollars to show. Harry waved his tickets, worth at least three thousand dollars, in the air. He shouted out his triumph. “Yes! Yes! Yes! The King is dead, but Long Live The King!”
Eli stood to cash for just under a thousand dollars on this race himself. He threw his arms around Harry, his face wreathed by a smile he could not efface.
As for Seb, well, he ambled over soon enough, a tight smile planted determinedly upon his face. He held out his hand to Harry. “Congrats to you, old boy. No question, you were the better man, today. No tears from this end. That was tremendous handicapping. Wizardry, let’s call it. I’d doff my hat to you if I were wearing one.”
The final race of the day was anticlimactic. Eli bet a hundred-dollar bill on a twenty-to-one longshot. The horse jogged home in last place. But Eli didn’t care. And then they were hustling toward the exits, grabbing Sunday’s Racing Form on the way out, the wind in the parking lot light and cool upon their faces, the joy palpable in their hearts. Jordan, who lived in a group home near Kleinberg’s apartment, waved happily to his brother. Eli and Harry, heading south toward the city, piled into the Triumph. Even as they drove out through the stone gates, Eli had begun to scan Sunday’s Form. Two horses in the first grabbed his eye. They would offer a tasty exacta payoff, he was sure.