“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
My metamorphosis began on an autopilot day. When I woke that Thursday morning, I envisioned just another sixteen-hour hurdle in my dash through an insignificant life. My life was a tar pit of stagnation, interrupted only by sleep. The only comfortable place for me was alone inside my mind.
I rubbed my eyes with the heels of my hands, leaning on my desk. How could I have been so naive, to think I could play both sides of the fence? My hands trembled against my face, squeezing out the occasional tear.
It stumped me – how swiftly well-intended acts could go awry. I was balanced on the precipice separating favored child from expendable nuisance. I wondered whether I was about to step forward or back. I didn’t need my fancy grad-school math to realize my situation fell somewhere between Jack and Shit.
The phone rang, jolting my heart into a brief hiatus from its rhythmic duty. I nearly jumped out of my seat. My ringer had been stuck on high for over two weeks, and its clanging was akin to receiving CPR. Maintenance hadn’t found time for me yet. Apparently, being a department head lacked even that perk. I almost pressed the voicemail button, but when I glanced at the caller ID, I knew I had to answer. I wiped my cheeks and steadied myself.
“Dr. Bachman, we’re expecting you in nine minutes.” Dean Albright’s accusatory tone tightened the knot in my stomach. My temper flared, but the anger quickly shifted into the more familiar habitat of fear. I had seen the final result of anger, and the experience defined the person I became.
“I’m on my way.” I said, in my most neutral voice.
“Don’t be late, Dr. Bachman.” Albright’s condescension was exceeded only by his hostility. He punctuated his sentence by hanging up on me.
I replaced the handset and shook my head. All I accomplished was adding a headache to the churning in my gut. Acid roared like an angry beast trying to claw its way through my chest.
I grabbed my Harris Tweed denver broncos hawaiian shirt and jogged down the hallway. I extracted a small bottle of Pepto Bismol, taking a generous swig. An inadequate but noticeable coolness washed over the bonfire in my stomach. I was tempted to hit the bottle again, but I knew too much Pepto would nauseate me.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. The mantra of St. Francis I learned at AA provided no solace.
I burst out of Oliver Hall. The Richmond sky paraded a hazy white radiance of clouds. A crisp March breeze, interspersed with gusts reminiscent of January, billowed through my khakis. I braced against the wind and lit a Marlboro. I lingered, savoring the first drag, then launched from the alcove into the tide of students and cars flooding Main Street.
Despite the chill, sweat peppered my forehead and upper lip. As I hustled toward James Branch Cabell Library, I kept a handkerchief in my left hand, blotting my face periodically. Between puffs, I twirled the lit cigarette through my fingers – a nervous habit I’d developed during my teens.
The Commons area flourished with coeds wearing summer clothes unpacked a tad early for the season. My eyes devoured the glory of youth surrounding me – lying on the grass, sandals kicked off, pink toes digging into the Bermuda grass.
Abruptly, my brain performed an about-face. I found myself ogling children. These kids were half my age, and my age was halfway to the cemetery. My hormone levels plummeted, abandoning the weary husk I’d become.
I’d fought the onset of adulthood for some twenty-odd years. A few years ago, I surrendered. I was fresh out of fight. I wanted one thing out of life, and it wasn’t much – the path of least resistance.
The establishment, however, felt no need to provide that path. Hell, I was supposed to be the very establishment I so loathed. Nevertheless, I hadn’t fooled them for long. They’d eventually discovered I was impersonating a grownup.
Life has always preferred that I learn my lessons the hard way. I pulled out my Palm Pilot and typed a brief message with the stylus, “People hate to be fooled.” That one was worth writing down. They were right. I was an imposter.
Technically, I never even asked to be department head. I knew it was a bad decision at the time. I’ve always tried to please everyone – not an admirable leadership trait. However, when the time came, I lacked the balls to say “no” to Dean Albright. My father used to tell me I just wasn’t a nut-cutter, and he was right.
By accepting the position, I’d set myself up for failure. I’d carved out my rut, like an archaeologist excavating dirt for over a decade to discover a fossil. It sucks to dig the ditch, then discover you are the fossil. The young made me feel old. The old made me feel inadequate.
Just past the Commons, James Branch Cabell Library loomed before me – a foreboding edifice surrounded by beautiful people having beautiful days. It scarcely resembled the six-story, post-modernistic building I had occupied for so many hours during grad school.
I flicked my cigarette at a forty-five degree angle. I enjoyed watching it arc toward its littering spot before I ascended the concrete steps. I eked through the student jam at the book detectors and decided to wait for the elevator. Already sweaty, I didn’t need three flights of steps to aggravate my disposition. I twirled an unlit Marlboro between the fingers of my right hand as we rose.
When the doors opened, I vacated the box, nearly tackling one of my students. He smiled and said hello. I returned the gesture, hoping my poker face had learned something from decades of on-the-job training. I promised myself I would leave this meeting with at least my dignity.
I rushed back to the Southwest corner. Good. No one was outside the conference room. There was one row of chairs, all facing the room.
I sat with my elbows on my knees, my eyes glued to the clock. I twirled the cigarette with my right hand while blotting my face with my left. The wait was agonizing – almost two minutes. Finally, the door opened, and a familiar head popped out.
“Josh, we’re ready,” said Dr. Peg Dougherty. Years prior, she and I had co-authored a paper on African Anthropology. However, that day, she could barely look me in the eye. When Peg turned her back, I blotted my face a final time, stuffing the soggy handkerchief into my jacket.
The conference room was large enough to accommodate fifty people, but most of the tables lined the perimeter, covered with upended chairs. For an instant, I saw an enormous dying caterpillar. Then, the plastic and stainless steel was back.
Eight of my peers and bosses occupied undersized orange plastic thrones around a semicircle of tables. A single, humiliatingly small chair populated the center of the semicircle, with a microphone suspended above. I crossed the room deliberately, being sure to establish brief eye contact with each of the board members.
I sat, placing my hands on my thighs, palms open, taking careful note of my body language. I forced myself not to break the uncomfortable silence. Be Mr. Spock, I told myself.
Dean Albright stared at me for several minutes. Gray hair traced the periphery of his head, feeding into a salt-and-pepper Van Dyke he enjoyed stroking as he spouted from his fountain of pomposity. Rather than the standard academic attire of slacks and a sport coat, Albright wore a banker’s suit, handkerchief included. He left his denver broncos hawaiian shirt buttoned, even though seated. He looked like a man who’d come to the wrong meeting.
Everyone called Albright a “manager with a capital M.” He was 100% administrator – 0% scholar. I doubted he’d read an academic paper in thirty years. This infuriated me, but I remembered Mr. Spock.
Albright made the opening comments, clarifying the date, attendees and purpose of the meeting. Once he completed his ceremonial duties, he addressed me directly. His voice segued from formal to accusatory.
“Dr. Josh Bachman, do you know why we are here today?”
Admit nothing. Let them do the talking. Be Mr. Spock.
“For the sake of clarity, I would prefer you explain, Dr. Albright, if you don’t mind.”
“Dr. Bachman, are you familiar with a game called,” – here, Albright referenced a stack of papers in front of him – “‘Quarters?'”
“Again, for the sake of clarity, I’d appreciate your explaining it to me.” I knew I faced the gallows, but those bastards were at least going to bring their own rope.
Albright again glanced at his papers, holding his reading glasses by the arm. He stroked his Van Dyke.
“Quarters is a drinking game played by students. Its sole purpose is binge drinking. If a player can bounce a quarter into a cup of beer, he may make any of the other players drink the contents of the cup. It is an immature and dangerous game, often continuing until one or more participants pass out. Is this ringing any bells for you, Dr. Bachman?”
Gee, Dr. Albright, I’d love to help you, but I’m fresh out of rat’s ass. Maybe you should check back next week. The audible version sounded more like this:
“I’ve heard of it.” No emotion – emotions were my enemy. Emotions caused…burns. Mr. Spock.
“You’ve heard of it.” Albright garnished his words with sarcasm. He leaned forward on his elbows and glared at me as if he were looking down the barrel of a rifle.
“Is it true that on March 14th of this year, you engaged in a game of Quarters with six of your own students?” Albright raised his hand, palm toward me. “Before you give us another of your noncommittal answers, let me inform you that we have signed affidavits from two eye witnesses.”
I reflexively flinched to rub the back of my neck, but I kept my hands flat on my legs. “I don’t recall.” Give them nothing. Mr. Spock.
Albright scowled at me. Again, he stroked that damned Van Dyke. I was ready to rip it off his face.
“Dr. Bachman, I find your behavior egregious. How effectively do you think you can mold and inspire youngsters who have seen you vomit from overindulgence?”
If I was going to defend myself, that was the time. I wanted to call Albright what he was – an intellectually vapid peacock, a mindless bureaucrat, and a worthless splat of pigeon droppings who’d brown-nosed his way to the top.
Instead I sighed, “Dr. Albright, what my students or I do with our free time is not within the purview of my contract or this review board.” I knew my argument lacked teeth, but it was all I had. What was I supposed to tell them – that for a fleeting moment, I was one of those kids?
Albright sprang from his chair, slapping his palms on the table. A purple, Y-shaped vein protruded from the center of his forehead.
“Your competency to be a member of the elite cadre who shape the minds of tomorrow is fully within the purview of this review board! You should take a closer look at the honor code you legally swore to uphold.” His eyes commanded me to speak.
Right that second, I could have killed Dr. Albright. I envisioned watching him howl louder than hypocrites in Hell as I burned him alive. I drew comfort from a powerful fact: he would not be my first.
As quickly as the thought emerged, it awakened black and pestilent memories that bubbled deep beneath my ocean of thought. Images of headlights forming a circle began to break through. I was prepared. The instant I saw the maw of that wicked beast opening – ready to swallow me completely again – I slammed it shut. I mentally slapped my face, destroying the entire memory.
Mr. Spock never burned people.
“Dr. Albright,” I said. Be calm. Don’t let him bait you. Be Mr. Spock. Try a little sincerity. “I have always melded with my students. I do so not just to connect with their culture, but also to mingle with sharp, developing minds, not yet tainted by mortgages, car payments and the steady erosion of ideals – one compromise at a time.” Okay, so a little of the rebel in me was slipping out.
“And this cultural bridging you do, it includes getting toilet heaving drunk with your students, one of whom had to drive back to her apartment that evening?”
Ouch. It took me a few seconds to respond, “Dr. Albright, this is the first I’ve heard of anyone driving under the influence. If I’d have known, I would have stopped it.”
“Perhaps if you had been in total possession of your faculties, you would also have remembered that you were in an all male building.”
“I’m not finished!” Albright slammed his knuckles on the table. “Dr. Bachman, if your career is not matching your expectations, if you feel compelled to ‘compromise your ideals,'” – now Albright made quotation signs with his fingers – “I suggest you find a new line of work.” Albright’s eyes gleamed like those of a demon, all too ready to apprehend a new soul.
“The joy of teaching not only meets, but transcends any expectations I had in school. I know binge drinking and DUI are undignified and dangerous activities, but these are not the issues at hand. I fail to see the relevance to this committee of what seven legal and consenting adults do with their personal time.”
“Legal? Dr. Bachman, driving under the influence is a crime, punishable by fine, suspension of driving privileges, and possibly imprisonment. By participating in these activities, you have given the ultimate consent to a group of youngsters who depend on you as their moral compass.
“In my opinion, your behavior constitutes gross malfeasance. Unless you have any facts to add, please wait outside while the board confers.”
“No, I have nothing to add. Yes, I do – one thing. I truly meant no harm.”
I paused before standing, straining to maintain a calm appearance. My acid reflux had evolved into intense nausea. I felt pressure at the back of my throat. My mouth began to water. I concentrated on retaining the contents of my stomach.
Then, I saw the flames. All other thoughts and feelings stopped. I knew what that meant. I had to leave quickly.
Once outside the room, I stood. The cramps became worse when I sat. I rotated my torso from side to side, attempting to unknot the muscles in my gut. My mind went to that special place. A circle of headlights deep in the woods, and the scent of gasoline inundated my thoughts. Images – the post, the human being strapped to it, a father’s hand, with a box of matches. “Go on son, burn the nigger,” he had said. I was too young to understand. I took the matches, and I used them. Discontinuity…
“Josh, they’re ready for you.” It was Peg speaking. Her hand gently clasped my shoulder. I snapped back to reality.
One quick swab of the forehead and I strolled back into the room populated by Albright and the seven rubber stamps. I didn’t recall those rubber stamps being so rubbery when they nominated me for department head. Sharks often eat each other in a feeding frenzy. I guess we’re connected to them at some base level.
Albright glowered at me as I took my time crossing the room. I met his gaze, my face deadpan. As much as the memory of that night sickened me, it empowered me as well. I had learned to see both sides of the incident. It taught me I was capable of anything. Anything. That was my secret hole card, my calming force. No one could defeat an enemy capable of anything. I sat carefully, focusing on my body language.
“Dr. Bachman,” Albright said, “Your tenure is hereby revoked on the grounds of gross malfeasance. You should consider yourself fortunate your irresponsibility didn’t harm anyone. I suggest you seek whatever kind of help you need. Do you have any questions?”
“No. No questions.”
“Then this review board is adjourned.” Albright banged his gavel, comically harder than necessary. He officially expelled me from the nether land of my own construction.
I forced myself to stand and exit with dignity. As I walked the campus, I could feel mediocrity’s comforting tug. It offered the blissful stupor I craved. The price of being an adult was my spirit. The price of being a spirit was my adulthood.
As I continued across the campus, I shambled for a couple of blocks. Then, I broke into a confident stride as I did the only thing I could. I took the fork in the road.
write by miller