The packing tape squealed as Professor Augie Sorenson ran the roll over the flaps of the last box containing the final odds and ends from his office. A voice outside the door said, “Found it, thank you.”
Augie looked up quickly, feeling the blush cross his face as if he’d been caught absconding with the silverware. A stern-looking young man entered, displeasure writ large across his face, the look quickly wiped away and replaced with a toothy smile. Augie used this tactic himself: the dissatisfaction made one appear discerning, and the smile charmed the viewer into thinking a bond was being forged.
“Oh. Excuse me,” the younger man said. “Roxane didn’t say you – ”
“I’m just about to leave,” Augie said, snipping off the tape. He offered his right hand. “Augustus Sorenson. Hello and good-bye.”
“Oh. Yes. Well. James Ignatius. Good-bye and good luck.”
Good luck. Augie rubbed briskly around his mouth, hoping to cover the sneer that he felt forming. Pity, he couldn’t stand pity from this upstart, this parvenu. Ignatius was the newly hired tenure-track professor brought in to replace Augie, who had failed – yes, failed, no sense sugar-coating this – to gain tenure. Augie nodded curtly and left the room, carrying the box with two hands, as if it were the Ark of the Covenant, instead of a cardboard Gilbey’s Gin box containing two mugs, a 26-oz flask of SoCo, a paperweight, ten packs of his preferred brand of pens, as well as Billy’s silk scarf.
Augie walked briskly down the corridor. Damn, he shouldn’t have wasted time sorting files – he should have dug up the whole bog, carted it home and sorted it there. But it was also the secretary Rookmanie’s fault – she had been deliberately vague (he believed) about the arrival of the new faculty member. Plus there had been interruptions. The IT guy, seeking to decommission Augie’s desktop computer. Visits from his two grad students, hinting at future requests for glowing letters of reference. They would transfer to different supervisors; he refused to grovel on their behalf to secure the best positions.
Augie’s grip on the box tightened as he walked, composing. To whom it may concern, So-and-So my former graduate student stayed with me on the deck of the Titanic, carrying out her assigned experiments, even as the ship went down. As loyal and thick-witted as they come.
Before he reached the elevators, Augie slowed down, checking if the coast was clear. Any sighting of Rookmanie or soon-to-be-former colleagues and he would detour into the men’s room. He’d often used this ploy to avoid being suffocated by oversize egos or excessive weather commentary. Or hyperjudgmentality, in the case of Rookmanie.
Augie pressed the button and a thought crept along the base of his neck, like a pet crow ready to peck. Oh shit. How could he forget that? Sickening dizziness passed over him. His god-damn diploma. Not just any mass-produced diploma from some redbrick university, but a lovely thick certificate from University of Oxford, with its triple-crown open-book coat of arms and Dominus illuminatio mea the spritz of Latin gracing the page. His name and his doctoral degree prominently on it. He’d had it professionally matted and framed in antique oak. How could he have forgotten that.
He would come and pick it up another day – but that, he realized, would involve Rookmanie. By nature, she was slyly vindictive, he had discovered on day one, when he overheard her mocking his ineptitude at using the combo light / ceiling fan controls. Forgetting his own eye-catching diploma – the most glorious of all diplomas in the department – would be a lasting sign of his stupidity.
Whereas, if he went back right now, Ignatius would barely be there, and one academic tended to be sympathetic to another’s absent-mindedness. After weighing the two scenarios, Augie retraced his steps. He would just blast through it without thinking it to death, as Ellen sometimes accused him of doing.
“I say.” Knock-knock. “Hello again.” Augie used the stern-then-smile tactic.
Looking up from his laptop, Ignatius smiled right back. He did not seem to have a clue about the stern-then-smile tactic.
Augie did a double take. The office looked different already. The overhead light was off and light came in slantwise from the large partially open window that looked onto a quadrangle, where once, he had seen Billy romping through piles of autumn leaves, her nose red and pinched, her jacket undone. The new guy had turned the desk at right angles from what Augie always had it. The nerve of him. Augie had barely left the room and made it to the elevators before the interior was being put in a blender.
“Oh hey. Glad you’re back,” Ignatius said, apparently sincere. “We didn’t get a chance to – ”
“Oh, I’m just back for this… I won’t disturb you further; I’m sure you’ve got a busy day ahead.”
“We met once before – at the symposium honoring Jack Sprott.” Ignatius got up from his chair and came to chat with his visitor.
“Oh, of course,” Augie said, feeling wrong-footed. “I thought you looked familiar.” Close-trimmed beard, receding hairline, grey-blue eyes behind glasses: the two men were virtually indistinguishable from half the conference attendees.
“You contributed a great chapter to the published proceedings,” Ignatius said.
Great. Augie recoiled from the hyperbole. He had co-authored a chapter with other Sprott collaborators and the final version was dry sponge-cake written by a committee of six. “Why, thank you,” he said.
Ignatius paused, just long enough, it seemed, to invite similar flattery. Augie frowned: had Ignatius presented anything at the symposium? He drew a blank. His eyes sought out the bookshelf – and saw Ignatius had already been populating the shelves with his books. Augie recognized the garish yellow-red of the Sprott Symposium Proceedings. He pointed and Ignatius gave him the book. It fell open to a single-author paper with Ignatius’s name.
“My, my, quite a feather in your cap,” Augie said. Given the man’s youth, the intensity of academic competition, and the stature of the universities’ researchers, being sole author on a chapter was indeed a mark of prestige.
“Would you like a copy?”
“No thank you, I have my own – ”
“Oops, I forgot. Of course you do.”
Augie smiled benevolently. What a pathetic hotshot: you even have to brag to me, the lowest of the low. Augie, too, had once been the golden boy. He felt a twinge of pride that he had stuff to brag about – yet didn’t.
“Look, we ought to do lunch,” Ignatius said.
“Yes,” Augie said. “Definitely, some time.” A vague, false promise to meet in the future – this was usually the best way to leave. He remembered easing Billy out with the pretend-hearty, “see you next week.” With her big, expressive eyes. Her deer-like startle. She would drift in and out of his office that year, a question on her lips, sometimes about the course work. He took her questions seriously and this inflamed her interest in him.
Ignatius opened his electronic calendar and said, “I’m free next Tuesday – how’s that sound?”
“Sorry, not next week – I’m away decompressing,” Augie said. He’d had no such plans, until the moment Ignatius put him on the spot. He would go help his brother shingle the garage. George lived an irregular life and never asked why Augie showed up when he did. Like that time, a year after Billy had finished the course and moved on, when he glimpsed her in the quadrangle with a lanky young man. Augie found himself at George’s place, dropping by to rebuild a lawn-mower and chew the fat about “the road not taken.” Menial labor, the best type of decompression.
“When you get back, then,” Ignatius said, “send me an email.”
Persistent bugger. “Sure. I’ll have a better idea of my calendar.”
“You see, I owe you one,” Ignatius said, pointing and clicking. “You picked up my tab that night at the Grad House – after the symposium shut down.” He chuckled. “You don’t remember? We were all a little sozzled.”
Augie remembered a dozen of them had gone for a drink-up afterward. He was in a newly flush period, have just bagged a lucrative fellowship. Ellen Garfinkel was present, whom he wanted to impress. The unspoken rule was not to pay for one specific woman’s drinks, but you could buy a round or two for all. Augie waved his hand dismissively. “Oh, piffle… mists of time… forget it.”
He would go home now, tell Ellen to book a timeshare for the next month so he could legitimately get out of lunch with this pushy stranger. Without, of course, being seen to be running away, tail between his legs. After all, he had to kickstart this whole job-search thing. He felt sick at the thought. A type of vertigo looking in the crater of Mount No-Tenure. And this asshole was oblivious to it. “Look, I need to get going,” Augie said. “I just came back for this.” He pointed to the Oxford diploma. “Ha-ha, don’t know how I could forget – ”
“It becomes part of the wallpaper, doesn’t it.” Ignatius moved forward to help Augie.
“That’s fine.” His tone of voice a warning. “I can handle it.” Augie removed it with more vigor than required, leaving bare wall.
Ignatius stepped back. “Oh my, that is strange.”
“What? The dust?”
Ignatius ran his palm over the wall where the diploma had been. “It’s bare plaster. Not even primed.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know – primer? The undercoat before painting?” Ignatius said. “Come, stand here – you can see the difference in this kind of light if you stand just so…”
“Oh. I see.” Augie shrugged. The color of the plaster, a very light gray, was virtually indistinguishable from the paint on the wall. Except it was not glossy in that slanting half-light of the office. “I hadn’t noticed.”
“Some wall repair,” Ignatius said.
“No doubt.” Augie managed a small chuckle. “This office was due for a painting when I came here five years ago.” He pointed to a divot near the door, and small gouges around the electrical outlet. “I’ve done my fair share of these,” he said, running his fingers over the imperfections. Confessing to the obvious ones. Staying mum about the big one. He balanced the framed diploma on his taped-up box and turned to the door. Leaving the office, take two.
It was that damn slantwise light coming in, he realized, that made the repair jump out at you. The low light reminded him of the rainy day when Billy, drenched from a sudden shower, shirt plastered against her nipples, had stopped by. She had seen him looking.
“Any idea where to next?” Ignatius said. He laced his fingers together and hooked them over his knee, like he was settling in for a spell of banter. “Whether it’s industry or academe, I have a ton of contacts.”
“The season for academic appointments is closed,” Augie said. “So – industry. If they’ll have me.” Augie hated what he’d just said. Christ, what a reject.
“You never know. Sometimes – well, accidents, pandemic – a sessional lecturer is needed right away,” Ignatius said. “Would you consider coming back as a sessional?”
The pay was one-third the rate of full-time with few benefits. It was a slap in the face. “Ha ha, what, is this a job interview?” Augie used his hearty laugh. He shifted the box until the mugs clinked.
“To make it plain, Augie, I’m suggesting a quid pro quo,” Ignatius said, his seriousness a damp blanket to Augie’s laugh. “I’m offering to do my utmost – calling in favors from my extensive network – in exchange for getting a brain-dump from you about the pitfalls here.” He stared levelly at Augie, whose hands were unpleasantly moist. “The last guy who asked me for help landed a position at Ernst and Young – a consultancy right up his alley.”
“Pitfalls? Well, for starters, her name is Rookmanie, not Roxana,” Augie said. He wanted to describe her as passive-aggressive but didn’t. Maybe it’s just me.
“Noted.” Ignatius wrote a Post-it note with her name. Exactly what Augie did five years ago.
“And the lecturing – well, I sucked at it the first year,” he said. “Get help with it.”
This guy’s insatiable. “Look, don’t trouble yourself on my behalf,” Augie said. “I plan to work abroad.”
“Germany, Israel, Japan – those are the top labs for materials science. I have sterling contacts in each country.” Ignatius leaned forward. “And there’s the added dimension of a job for Ellen.”
Ellen. Damn, this guy knew the names of the buttons to push. Augie looked out the window, trying on the thought: a position for him, a position for Ellen. Wasn’t it time to think of her interests as well? She had accused him of being distant. “Who is she?” Ellen had asked one night, right out of the blue.
“Nothing happened,” Augie had said, a true answer, but bad, because it meant there was someone there, a little Miss Muffett sitting among the tuffets of his brain. “Help me get past this,” he had begged. Spirit willing, flesh weak, and they went to Paris.
“Anything you would have done differently?” Ignatius asked.
Augie saw two men exiting the faculty club deep in conversation. They slowed their pace and the older man put his hand on the younger man’s shoulder. Remember, you simply must… if all else fails… at the very least.
He could hear the soft cooing of his favorite bird, the mourning dove. He spotted the bird, as plump-chested as a pigeon, but with a long, pointed tail, perched on the mulberry. There was one thing he would have done differently. If he could have. The dean of arts and science had the tie-breaking vote in tenure decisions. He and Ellen quarrelled a lot, even after the rapprochement in Paris. In her corporate job, she had to pay attention to matters as picayune as the order of names in a group email. “I’m always playing politics. Wish I could be like you and stop worrying about this shit.”
His career was ethereal, research-focussed. He had achieved a fine balance in teaching – never being so bad as to excite the ire of students, nor so good as to stir up envy among colleagues. His research received genuine praise, was replicated and extended by others. He’d thought that would be enough. So he had considered the promotion from junior untenured to full professor was a given. Wasn’t that what he should warn Ignatius about: complacency?
And then, there was the horrible week. It began with a notice of cutbacks. “Our research goals are pivoting toward newer initiatives” blah blah blah, the use of “pivot” a red flag that corporate types had fastened themselves to the heads of the decision-makers and sucked out their brains. Forget basic research; support window dressing, stuff that could be monetized within two years.
And then, Billy’s visit. She had staggered into his office, her eyes glassy and dilated, her lips purply and chapped. “Daddy always checks citations,” she whispered. “Wants to make sure you’ve noticed the one frikken brilliant thing he’s done.” Her visit was so unexpected, he assumed it was a waking dream. But a nasty one, like cutting yourself on broken glass from a party given two years earlier.
Then, late on Friday of the horrible week, he had picked up the interdepartmental mail. A letter from HR offered out-placement counselling and suggested a date for the exit interview. In the same pile, a letter from the dean. The tenure-granting committee has reviewed your application, it read. We regret to inform you…
The next thing Augie knew, he was extricating his fist from the drywall. His hand was on fire – as if chilli sauce had been poured into the marrow of each of his finger bones.
Hours later, he crawled into bed beside a sleeping Ellen, his right hand curled around a bag of ice and wrapped in a pillowcase. Saturday morning, he went to his office with a pot of drywall goop and a plastering spatula. He had left the goop to dry all day and had come in on Sunday with sandpaper and primer. But Rookmanie had been in the office, working to deadline, and Augie knew the primer had a smell.
The mourning dove cooed again. The two men from the Faculty Club reached the Newton Building and went inside. Augie hadn’t known Billy was the dean’s daughter – another fact Rookmanie had conveniently kept from him. If only he had known about the importance of citing the dean’s paper in his own word, he would have included it.
No, perhaps not. He despised toadies.
Ignatius came and stood beside him, straining to see what was absorbing Augie so completely.
“I’ll miss these mourning doves,” Augie said. He turned to the new guy. “If I think of anything else worth passing along, I’ll let you know.”