The man lying prone on the floor is still groggy. He tries to get up, but can’t. His limbs and torso are restrained with leather straps attached to steel clamps bolted into the concrete floor. Suddenly aware of his plight, he regains full consciousness.
“Where am I? How did I get here?”
The man is illuminated by a bare light bulb dangling overhead. Beyond the reach of the light, the surrounding space fades away in shadows. From the deep resonance of the man’s voice, it is evident that he is in a large and empty place, maybe an abandoned store or warehouse.
Someone in the shadows speaks to him in an amiable tone, as would a host making his guest feel a home.
“Hello, Professor. Have a nice nap?”
The owner of the voice lets the man wonder for a while, then slowly steps into the lighted area, bearing a baseball bat. He kneels close to the man on the floor, so they are face to face.
“Remember me, Professor Hernandez?”
Hernandez stares for a moment, as if seeing an apparition.
“Robles! Carlos Robles! Yes, I remember you. You’re the grad student that dropped out of our program and joined the Marines.”
“Yes, Professor. I joined the Marines and served two tours in Vietnam. But I did not drop out of your graduate program. That part of the story is wrong. What happened—refresh your memory, Professor—was that you forced me out.”
“No, Carlos! No! I would never have done that to you. You were my best student, like a nephew to me, and a fellow Cuban. The faculty committee, they were the ones that recommended you transfer to a school more to your liking.”
“And who chaired and dominated the committee? You, Professor! You were the one who screwed me, and now you’re going to pay for it, in full.
Robles rises and slowly starts walking around the prone Hernandez, studiously swinging the bat and doing stretching exercise with it, as would a baseball player on the on-deck circle preparing for his turn at bat.
Hernandez, whimpering, follows Robles with his eyes.
“Carlos, please! I can explain!” From one Cuban to another. Escúchame, por favor!”
Suddenly piqued, Robles pokes him in the belly with the bat.
“Don’t talk to me in Spanish. Dammit! I’m in no mood to hear that goddam language! And don’t give me that fellow Cuban crap.”
“But you are a Cuban, Carlos, like me.”
“Wrong, Professor. I’m an American. I have no recollections of Cuba. I came to this country at age three, and from what my parents told me, Cuba was not worth recollecting, anyway. A backward, corrupt country—nothing to be proud of.”
Robles resumes circling around Hernandez, swinging his bat. He is a trim, sinewy man of around 40, clad in boots, jeans, and a military green T-shirt, hair closely cropped, the classic figure of a U.S. Marine, in stark contrast with the pudgy, fiftyish man shackled to the floor.
“Carlos, please be reasonable! Hear me out!”
“O.K. Professor, I’m listening. But speak in English. Don’t piss me off!”
Cocking his head, in a mock listening gesture, Robles leans over Hernandez.
“But, hey! Why am calling you Professor? You never deserved that title. You got your Ph.D. back in the days when they were giving them away. A fraud, Alfredo. That’s what you are.”
“You say my Ph.D. in Spanish literature was a gift?”
“That’s right, Alfredo. You got it under an idiotic Federal program to mass produce foreign language educators. All one needed to qualify was a speaking knowledge of some foreign language. In your case, that was easy, Spanish being your native tongue. Had the demand been for educators in math, science, or some legitimate field, phonies like you would have never made it.”
Robles resumes pacing around Hernandez, pivoting and changing directions now and then, and swinging the baseball bat, now more forcefully.
“But I can’t say that I blame you. America is the land of upward mobility. You were offered a freebie profession and you took it.”
“No, no, Carlos it wasn’t like that at all!”
“Bullshit, Alfredo! I’ve met more than a few so-called exiles from Cuba who were accepted in those Ph.D. programs with forged credentials, no questions asked. And having witnessed your educational limitations first hand—Hell, you thought that Aristotle was a Roman statesman—I suspect that you were one of those impostors.”
“You’re wrong, Carlos. My credentials are legitimate, from the University of Havana.”
“Whatever, Alfredo. As I said, I don’t blame you for seizing the freebie that the gullible gringos offered you. They got what they deserved. What I hate is the way you clawed your way to the top and abused your power. For that, I can’t forgive you.”
“I did my job, Carlos. My record as department chairman is impeccable. I have commendations to prove it.”
“Bullshit! You’re no scholar or administrator, not even close. A third-world crook, an evil bastard, that’s all you are.”
“Not true! Not true!
“People who knew you in Cuba told me you were an informant, a chivato, for Batista’s secret police. When Castro took over you had to flee for your life. Well, fate has finally caught up with you,”
“Carlos, please, can’t you see?”
“Can’t see what, Alfredo?”
“That your war experiences have distorted your recollections of what happened between us. I’m not the monster you think I am.”
“Oh, so you think the war made me crazy.”
“No, I didn’t mean it that way.”
“Well, for your information, my war experience had the exact opposite effect. It cleared my mind of all delusions. There I was in Vietnam, killing people with whom I had no quarrel, while my real enemies were here at home, out of harm’s way. The corrupt politicians, the rapacious CEO’s, the fat old men in tailored suits that started the war for profit, the frauds like you—those were the ones that needed killing.”
“That was 14 years ago, Carlos, too long a time to bear a grudge.”
“For me, Alfredo, my grudge against you has been most inspiring. You’d be surprised by all the insights and wisdom I’ve garnered by reliving my ugly memories of you. In a sense, you—and others like you—have been my muse.”
“So I take it that I’m not your first victim.”
Hernandez seemingly wants to engage Robles in an argument, hoping, perhaps, that the longer he keeps him talking, the more likely he will listen to reason, but the fear in him renders his accented English even more accented, and unconvincing.
“Jesus Christ, Alfredo. I can barely understand what you’re saying. What kind of linguist are you? Lived in this country for over 20 years, chair a university language department, and still can’t speak English worth a damn.”
Chuckling scornfully, Robles reaches down and tweaks Hernandez’s nose. “Further proof that you are a fraud.”
Robles continues circling his captive, now in slow, menacing steps, as if preparing to pounce on him at any moment.
“Yes, Alfredo, my stint in Vietnam turned out to be a blessing. Not only did it open my eyes to the real world, but it also taught me many marketable skills, like how to make undesirables disappear. That’s what I do for a living nowadays, by the way, as part of a team of other veterans. Pays quite well, though for this job my partners offered their services for free. We now and then do personal favors for each other. The old warrior brotherhood.”
Robles tugs at Hernandez’s Cuban guayabera shirt.
“See, not a smudge on it, and not a mark on your body save for the prick on your arm where I shot you with the tranquilizer dart. A clean, professional job.”
Hernandez opens his mouth, as if to cry for help.
“Go ahead, call out all you want, but you’d be wasting your energy. This place I chose for our reunion is in the middle of nowhere, next to a garbage dump.” And sniffing the air: “Which explains that foul odor you smell. Yes, an ideal location. No one for miles around, except for my buddies outside waiting for me to finish.”
He teasingly runs his fingers under Hernandez’s guayabera shirt. “Plenty of vermin in here, though. If you listen carefully, you can hear the rats squealing. They’re hungry.”
An electric cord with a switch dangles from a black box-like object affixed to a beam half hidden in the shadows overhead. Robles looks at his watch then glances up at the black object.
“But time’s a-wasting, Alfredo. Let’s get on with our reminiscing. Remember the day we met? You, the big-shot tenured professor, and I, the lowly grad student? Remember?”
Hernandez shakes his head.
“No? Well, let me refresh your memory. You were supposed to be interviewing me, quizzing me about my qualifications, but all you did was talk about yourself, trying to awe me. And when you realized I wouldn’t be awed, that intellectually and creatively I was your superior, you resolved right then and there to crush me.”
“You’re imagining all this, Carlos.”
“But you didn’t crush me right away. No, you took your sweet time, leading me on here, putting me down there, plagiarizing my term papers, stealing my ideas. Then, when I submitted my dissertation, a piece of scholarship far better researched and written than anything you had ever done or would ever do, you rejected it out of hand. Had others professors not read it, you would have stolen that, too.”
Hernandez appears to have overcome his fear. His accented English is now less accented, more deliberate, with a galling, taunting edge to it, in keeping with the kind of man remembered by Robles.
“You misunderstood, Carlos. In the Old World tradition where I was educated, grad students are regarded as apprentices. Whatever they do is the intellectual property of the master professor. I made that perfectly clear in my orientation sessions. So I did not steal your work, as you say, I merely incorporated it into mine, and the fact that I did was a sign of approval, like giving you an A. You should have felt flattered.”
“An Old World scholar? You? An undergraduate from the University of Havana with fake credentials and a trumped-up Ph.D. from a third-rate American University? Bullshit! And forcing students to do your laundry and run errands for you, and expecting sexual favors? Was that also part of your Old World tradition? ”
Robles crosses over to the other side of Hernandez, by stepping on his legs. “This is modern-day, democratic America, scumbag. No Old-World serfdom allowed here.”
Hernandez winces, and then smirks. “Too bad. Your great American society could use a little Old World class.”
Robles crosses over his captive the same as before. “You may deem me a brutish fellow, but no, at heart I’m a considerate soul. Had you shown me the slightest hint of decency, I might have forgiven you. But try as I might, I couldn’t detect any.”
“None at all?”
“None, not even in your personal life. You made it a sport of cheating on your wife—the Latino macho man act—until you forced her to leave you. And your son and daughter—from what I heard, once they finished college, they moved away and never again had anything to do with you. You must have abused them pretty badly.”
Hernandez strains hard against the straps binding him to the floor, then abruptly stops, exhausted.
“You can’t get away with this, Robles! The police will track you down.”
“After all these years? Fat chance. The only ones under suspicion will be the enemies you’ve made since you screwed me. So many, I figure, that the cops will eventually get flustered and give up. Besides, changing identities to elude the law is an integral part of my professional training. I’m an expert at it.
“Damn you! Even if you manage to evade the law, in the end God will punish you.”
“God! Which God are you talking about, Alfredo? The meddling deity served up by churches to control and exploit the gullible masses.” Robles waves the baseball bat in front of Hernandez’s eyes.
“Like my bate, Alfredo? Bring back fond memories of our Cuban pastime?” He pokes him some more with the bat. “Oh, don’t get me wrong. I strongly believe that God the Creator exists, and that the only way for us mortals to achieve joy and fulfillment to the extent we are capable is by emulating his modus operandi. Am I making myself clear?”
“You’re playing God, is that it?
“No, not playing, emulating. The Creator, you see, is at once a demolisher and a builder, a destroyer and a preserver. He divides and unifies, kills and heals, avenges and . . ..”
“Maybe. But calling me names isn’t going to save your sorry ass.” Robles lays the baseball bat aside, and steps off into the surrounding shadows.
Hernandez had meanwhile espied the black object on the beam overhead and is gazing up at it, muttering something in Spanish.
Presently, Robles returns with a thick wooden dowel and a length of red ribbon, and shows them to Hernandez. “The garrote. Part of our Spanish heritage. A far neater form of execution than the gas chamber or the potassium chloride lethal injection. Don’t you agree, Alfredo?” Tying the ribbon loosely around Hernandez’s neck, he inserts the dowel in the slack under his chin. “A traditional garroting would have the torque applied behind the neck, I know; but because you’re lying on your back, this front-of-the neck variation will have to do.”
Robles suddenly leans over his captive, startled. “Hey, what’s this? Why are you sweating and having so much trouble breathing when I haven’t started twisting yet? Shit, you have bad heart, don’t you? That bottle of pills we found in your pocket must have been your medication. And that sly smile on your face. You’re aiming to die before I can kill you! Cheat me one last time. Well, Professor, it’s not going to work.”
Robles swiftly straddles Hernandez’s heaving chest and proceeds to twist the dowel, hard, and keeps on twisting well after the chest stops heaving. Then rising to his feet, he takes the switch dangling from the black object overhead and, as if addressing an audience, announces: “Alfredo Hernandez. September 4, 1982.” He then presses the switch, and the room is engulfed in darkness.
John Nagle packed the last of his belongings into the U-Haul trailer, Effective that day, his two-year contract as visiting professor of English at Dawson College, in North Carolina, had expired. First thing tomorrow morning he would turn in the key to his rented apartment and leave for Radford University in Virginia, 150 miles up the Interstate, to his next visiting-professor post, this one for only one year.
Despite his impeccable credentials—M.A., Dartmouth, Ph.D., Yale—he had never been able to win a permanent position in any of the schools where he had taught, English Ph.D.s like himself being a dime dozen, a pool of cheap labor for institutions economizing on full-time salaries.
At some schools, as many as one-third of the humanities faculty were of the visiting kind, on temporary, dead-end assignments. Since his graduation 15 years earlier, Nagle had bounced from job to job, earning less than the average department secretary, a nonentity at the very bottom of the academic pecking order.
But it wasn’t the glut of English Ph.D.s alone that was keeping him down Had he not been so contemptuous of conventional scholarship—”That mind-numbing crap in the limbo of university libraries”—; had he followed the lead of savvy professors and rehashed chapters from his dissertation as articles for professional journals; and had he been a bit more diplomatic, more subtle, not so apt to criticize and gall his tenured superiors, he might have been given a chance.
But, no, he would not abide by academic tradition or hold his tongue. Predictably, the insightful pieces he wrote on the 9/11 attacks and on the war in Iraq for a local newspaper were dismissed out of hand by the powers-that-be in the Dawson English department. Nor did his 16 short stories, none yet published, count for anything in their esteem. He had pissed them off once too often, and they couldn’t wait to see him go.
So there he was, at age 42, unmarried, no close friends or family ties to speak of, waistline a bit thicker, hair a bit thinner than a year ago, a veritable failure due as much to his obstinate idealism as to external circumstances.
Having by now seen the writing on the wall, he resolved that if he failed to earn a permanent position at Radford, he would quit academe and seek employment in a more secure, rewarding field, probably home construction. During summer breaks, he had worked for local subcontractors, building and renovating houses, and had become pretty good at it. Half of the boxes packed in the U-Haul held his collection of construction tools, ranging from state-of-the-art power tools to antique mallets and chisels.
Like most institutions of higher learning in America, Dawson College gave much lip service to social equality. The pictures and blurbs of every full-time employee of the college—secretaries, technicians, receptionists, book store clerks, security guards, cafeteria workers—were listed together with those of the faculty and administration, the president included.
But in fact the Dawson community was sharply stratified in castes, in keeping with its self-image as an elite institution. Other than a cursory “Good morning,” full professors did not socialize with assistant professors and, much less, with non-academic employees. Especially snobbish was a dean who smiled wide with his mouth while skewering you with tack-like eyes. The unwritten order required that everybody know and keep their place.
In this, too, John Nagle messed up, big time. His tendency to get chatty with everyone alike made everyone alike feel uncomfortable. The show-more-respect gestures from the bigwigs and the suspicious frowns of underlings were lost on him.
The only one who reciprocated his friendly overtures was a fellow named Chuck, the head of the buildings-and-grounds crew. The old apartment building where Nagle resided was property of the college. When Chuck came one day with his crew to demolish the deck behind the property and build a new one, Nagle and Chuck struck up a conversation, and the two hit it off.
Several times a week they would meet for coffee in the school café. At first, figuring that Chuck was at most a high school graduate, he tried to steer away from intellectual topics. But much to his amazement, the building-and-grounds man turned out to be the most erudite person he had ever known. Not only was he conversant in English and American literature, Nagle’s field, but he could shift from literature to history to philosophy to physics to art to economics to biology, seamlessly tying it all together, as if orchestrating the work of his crew.
When Nagle inquired how he came to acquire such a vast erudition, Chuck would smile, saying: “I’m a hedonistic reader.” And left it left it at that. Their chats in the college café thereafter waxed more intellectual, and one-sided, with Chuck doing most of the talking and Nagle the listening.
A trim, sinewy man in his sixties, clean shaven, thick head of hair cropped short, and ever in a bright mood, the person of Chuck the buildings-and-grounds man had taken on mythical proportions in the eyes of the middling visiting professor, and the fact that Chuck never talked about himself lent him an air of mystery that enhanced his image all the more.
For all the hours he had spent listening to Chuck expound on everything under sun, Nagle never heard him utter a word that might betray who or what he had been before he came to Dawson five years earlier. Nagle had to look in the college directory to learn that Chuck’s surname was Ortega, though, given how careful Chuck was to keep his past secret, Nagle suspected that the name was fake. And as far as he could tell, he was the only person in Dawson to whom Chuck had revealed his scholarly side.
So it was that in their chats Chuck did most of the talking and Nagle most of the listening —until the day that Chuck happened to read the short stores that Nagle had put up on his web page.
Among Chuck’s pet themes had been the healing power of catharsis, not as Aristotle would have it, where one vicariously purges a troublesome passion by identifying with actors acting out the passion on stage. In Chuck’s version of catharsis, the spectator and the actor were one and the same.
“First one acts, then one recalls and reflects on the act, as if watching oneself on stage,” Chuck had explained, as Nagle listened intently. Perhaps that was what he needed, the kind of catharsis advocated by Chuck, to turn his life around,
After reading Nagel’s stories, Chuck again brought up the theme of catharsis. This time, however, with an ulterior motive. The second-hand adventures and social commentaries in Nagle’s stories he found sophomoric, if not silly.
But the way Nagle had put the stories together, the language and style, struck a chord in Chuck’s imagination. Nagle had unwittingly offered himself up as a tool that Chuck had long been seeking and intended to exploit.
So now the nature of their chats in the student café changed, with Nagle, at Chuck’s prompting, doing most of the talking and Chuck the listening.
Nagle at first felt flattered, but after a while Chuck’s undue admiration of his stories made him feel uncomfortable, then suspicious. The buildings-and-grounds man had too abruptly and too drastically transformed from an intellectual superior to a deferential inferior angling for attention, Even his speech changed, from a calm Southern drawl to an obsequious voice tinged with what sounded to Nagle like a Spanish accent. Clearly, Chuck wanted something from him, something important, but what that was, he did not care to know. He had enough problems of his own. Finally, he told Chuck that he was too busy preparing classes, and broke off meeting him in the student café.
A week before he left for his new post at Radford University, Nagle received this e-mail from Chuck:
By the time you read this, I will have left Dawson for another job at another place, the details of wish I do not wish to disclose.
You no doubt have wondered why I was so enthralled with your stories. Let me explain.
To be truthful, the contents of the stories are trite, unoriginal, boring, to say the least. Small wonder that no publisher would accept them. On the other hand, your literary skills are first-rate. Though you have nothing of interest to say, you know how to say it brilliantly.
But that alone was not what enthralled me. It was that fact that your half-gift complemented mine. You see, I have much to say, great stories to tell, but, alas, cannot write worth a damn. Try as I might, the right words and sentences elude me, probably because English is not my native language, and what limited command I once had of my native language I long ago lost.
Many an hour I had spent analyzing the style of ghost writers, hoping to find one that might be able to convincingly express what I wanted to say, but to no avail. Then fate brought us together. Your unique style was precisely what I was looking for and, as you will see in the DVD records I have sent you, my real-life experiences are precisely what you need to make your stories ring true.
When you get to Radford you will find a box of the DVDs in your mailbox, waiting for you. Some are copies of old VHS tapes, so the images may be a bit blurred, but the details are clear enough, and the contents self-explanatory.
Since you don’t know where I’ve gone, or, for that matter, who I am, I do not expect any recognition. (My original self was officially declared “missing in action” in Vietnam 40 years ago.) So, if you decide to use my records for new stories, as I hope you will, please feel free to submit the stories for publication as if they were entirely your own. The fact that what I have to say is finally written up and presented to the world would be all the reward I need.
Good luck to you,
John Nagle liked Radford a lot better than Dawson. The apartment he had rented was walking distance from the campus and much more comfortable; the surrounding mountain landscape more scenic; the weather more pleasant; and the university community more congenial, though some of its members were still jittery over the massacre of 32 people by a psychotic loner, which had taken place that April at Virginia Tech, just 10 miles away.
He arrived at Radford on Friday, three days before classes started. The parcel of DVDs from Chuck were already in his department mailbox, as a Chuck had said, along with a faculty orientation folder and rosters of his three English 101 classes. The U-Haul trailer unpacked and returned to the local rental office, he spent the better part of the weekend settling into his apartment and making lesson plans.
On Sunday he watched the late evening news, most of it coverage of the war in Iraq. Then, curious about what Chuck had in mind, he opened the parcel of DVD disks. There were 16 of them, each in plastic cases labeled with a person’s name and a date, the dates ranging from 1980 to 1999.
Randomly selecting the one labeled Alfredo Hernandez, September 4, 1982, he turned on his DVD player and inserted the disk.