Zach Reid crossed the laminate floor in his cramped studio apartment. His black trousers were undone, waiting for a shirt to be tucked in. He carried two hangers with him to the tiny bathroom. He held up a blue button-down and checked the mirror. Unimpressed, he switched to a smoky gray one. Equally unimpressed, he held the two side by side. He contemplated which one was more professional, more mature.
His baby-face often undermined his accomplishments, or at least that’s the way he perceived it. He had trouble believing that the same face that got carded for buying cigarettes could reflect the many years of schooling under his belt. He finally settled on the gray shirt and moved on to agonizing over his tie. He had precisely one tie, so it wasn’t the choosing that was difficult for him. Rather, he wondered if the subtle purple in the stripes was too childish.
It didn’t matter; it was too late to change it. He forced himself to move on and continue dressing. He perched on the edge of his unmade bed, socks in hand. He had two dozen pairs of identical, black trouser socks. The choice was made for him, and even if it hadn’t been, no one would see his socks anyway. His dress shoes, shined the previous night, gleamed next to the door, waiting to proudly march the halls of academia.
Shoes donned and leather portfolio in hand, Zach left his sanctuary and proceeded into the harsh fluorescent lighting of the hallway. He locked the door, took five steps down the hall, and returned to rattle the doorknob. Though not superstitious and more inclined to spontaneity than any sort of routine, he couldn’t break himself of the habit. Clutching his portfolio like a lifeline, he exited the building and stepped out into the world.
The hot Louisiana summer enveloped him like a wet towel. Heat waves ricocheted off the black asphalt, ratcheting up his discomfort. Zach was glad he had chosen one of his moisture-wicking undershirts as he felt his sweat glands prickle. Today was not a day for unsightly pit stains.
He finally reached his white Explorer after what dramatically felt like a mile of hiking. The interior was just as sweltering and definitely more stifling than the parking lot had been. With his window down for circulation, Zach traversed the five miles to the university. He double checked that his parking permit was hanging from his mirror when he parked in the lot closest to the Charlotte Templeton building.
It felt strange to approach with such trepidation when he’d spent years walking up the stone steps leading to the classrooms and lecture halls eager to learn. The door hinge gave a little squeak as he pulled it open. Had it always done that? The familiar checkered floor seemed foreign, emphasizing just how unique this particular visit was.
He mounted the stairs, one hand on the railing, one holding his portfolio. He carried the weight of his nervousness up three flights. He exited the stairwell into the corridor on the fourth floor. In all his years, he had never set foot on the fourth floor. It was laid out like the others: a ring of classrooms surrounding a central set of restrooms and storage closets. Eyes aimed at the height of the brass plaques numbering each door, Zach began his trip down the hall in search of room 409A. It was not a very long trip.
The door was ominous. It was solid and imposing, unlike the other doors which had small windows in them. He settled onto a bench and tried to look confident. The imperceptible tick of his watch thundered in his ears. Or maybe that was just his heartbeat. He bolstered his look of faux confidence as the door opened. A woman stepped out, her heels clicking on the floor. She looked like a secretary with her pencil skirt and ruffled blouse, but her nervous expression put her in the same boat as Zach.
“It’s one hell of a panel in there,” she said sitting beside him.
“I’m afraid to ask,” Zach admitted. “But I’ll do it anyway. Who’s in there?”
“Dr. Smith, Dr. Davison, Dr. Whittaker, Dr. McCoy, and Dr. Baker,” she answered.
“Which Dr. Baker? There’s Thomas and C. I’ve never known what the C stands for.”
“C. I don’t know what it stands for either.”
Zach sighed in relief. “Thomas Baker scares the bejeezus out of me.”
Time ticked on, and the conversation lulled. The door opened, surprising both of them. The woman stood and went inside. She came out a few moments later, barely holding herself together. She hurried away. It was quite clear to Zach that she had failed.
“Mr. Zachary S. Reid,” Dr. Whittaker called out as though Zach wasn’t the only person within earshot.
He stood and followed her into the room. The door shut with a resounding finality. Dr. Whittaker took her place between Dr. Davison and Dr. Baker. Zach approached the podium facing the jury. He opened his portfolio and removed his work. A few pages fluttered loose. Grasping ineffectively for them as they succumbed to gravity, he narrowly avoided uttering a swear word.
“I’m sorry, very sorry,” he apologized as he regathered his material.
“Not to worry, Mr. Reid,” Dr. Smith began. “We’re all human here. As a matter of fact, we were delayed starting with Ms. Addison before you as I knocked over my glass of water.” She tapped her pearly nails on a glass which had since been refilled. “When you’re ready, please begin.”
Zach cleared his throat and presented his dissertation. He nervously answered a plethora of questions when he was through. He felt in his gut that questions meant he had not done a good job presenting. He returned to the bench in the hall to await judgment.
The doctoral committee was not composed of his peers. There was no judge presiding. No one was there to speak on his behalf. As we waited for the verdict, he couldn’t help but feel that failing would be like a life sentence. The culmination of a waste of time leading to a life of little consequence.
He shook his head. It was dramatic. Far too dramatic. Failure would not mean eternal doom. And the jury was still out. Things could still go his way. Had they been deliberating longer than they had for Ms. Addison? Zach had not timed her wait. His seemed interminable. Did criminals feel this way?
At last, the door opened again. Dr. Whittaker stepped out. What was the sentence?
“Doctor,” she said, holding out a hand.