JAMES entered the outer office. The leather chairs were empty and the glass-topped coffee table gleamed. The desk of Robin, the sentinel-like secretary charged with intercepting unscheduled visitors like him, was unoccupied. He strode past it, towards the inner office door, and paused with his hand above the handle—the door was already ajar. Audible beyond were the hushed voices of a man and a woman. He cocked his head in an attempt to listen. Too late. The conversation had given way to silence.
Intrigue warred with annoyance as James lowered his hand, yet surprise routed them both. The door retreated and revealed the familiar face of a startled man. A second passed before the lined face regained its usual, unassailable composure. Another second passed before the eyes narrowed in recognition and the lips crafted a word.
A smile seeped across James’ face. His hand dropped to his side. He stayed on the threshold, blocking the escape he knew the elder man would prefer.
“Derek.” James’ smile morphed into a mask of sudden confusion. “I thought your kind were averse to sunlight?” James shifted his weight to his right foot and placed his right hand on his hip. “You really should take more care. No one wants you to decompose like a carcass in the desert. Least of all me.”
Derek didn’t rise to the prick. His eyes settled and locked upon James’ own, as if a beam of concentrated malice could turn a corporeal being to dust.
James’ smile came back to the surface as he transferred his weight back to his other foot. He broke eye contact. His hands began a series of slow, expansive gestures intended to smooth the passage of the impending train of thought.
“I understand, though,” continued James. “There’s a kind soul buried somewhere in there, and—”
“Pointless exchanges with out of favour tenure-track employees aren’t on my day’s agenda,” said Derek. “Move.”
Derek spoke his last word like a deity reiterating a basic command to a dimwitted disciple. But James wasn’t dimwitted, nor did he consider Derek divine in any way. So he ratcheted his shoulders backwards and down and lifted his chest. James took a step forward, initiating a hostile occupation of space reserved only for true intimates. Position established, he elevated his chin, tilted his head a degree to the left and met Derek’s grey eyes. Iron clashed with iron. After a moment, James stepped back and to the right.
“My apologies, sir,” said James, who assumed the guise of an indebted servant making way for an exalted guest, “I thought you more master than slave. Forgive me, please.”
Derek departed without a word.
James waited until Derek’s footfalls had merged with the gentle, early morning hum of the building. Then, like a sapling recovering at the end of its first storm, he straightened. New grin upon his face, he stepped into the inner sanctum. Into the domain of Mary, the Dean.
She was behind her desk. Her head was angled away from the door and towards one of her office’s third-floor windows. Her hands sat atop the desk’s surface, the fingers intertwined and the tips of her thumbs together. James took a few steps forward and tracked her gaze. She was watching the students below crisscross each other’s paths. Some moved fast, some moved slow. The light from the rising sun penetrated the room and illuminated the darkness of Mary’s skin. Her torso, clothed in a grey-marl jacket with a jade dress underneath, rotated towards him, followed by her head.
“James Barker, ever the antagonist.”
James walked over, pulled out a chair opposite Mary and fell into it.
“Derek’s a bully,” mumbled James, “and I don’t like bullies.” James fidgeted, pulled himself up from his slouch and folded one leg underneath the other. “I can’t topple the throne but I can tickle the king.”
Mary’s features softened, as did her tone. The tips of her thumbs began to separate and reconnect in time with her own secret rhythm. “Careful, James. Derek can be dangerous.”
James waved a hand and swept away the web of worry Mary had attempted to spin around him. “Derek’s a snake. He slithers.” James brought his raised arm down and, in symphony with his other upper limb, slapped the arms of the chair. He unfolded his leg, shifted forward and rubbed his hands together in anticipation.
“Forget Derek. Tell me the good news.”
A reluctant smile spread across Mary’s face. She sighed. “You can’t teach the course here. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing more I can do.”
James leaned back into his chair. An air of defeat enveloped him for a moment before it was replaced by an aura of defiance. “Isn’t it the college’s purpose to provide students with the best possible platform for the future?”
Mary had to lean forward to catch his words. “Yes, but—”
“Isn’t teaching them unusual perspectives a valuable skill in an illegible world?”
“Yes, James, but—”
“Then isn’t the refusal to let me teach this course negligence on both yours and the college’s part?”
Mary reclined but said nothing, so James surged on.
The two words hosted an immutable power that James had learnt from experience not to challenge. He acceded to Mary’s demand with a deferential nod.
“James, you have near-absolute freedom, which multiple times you’ve come close to abusing. ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Successful Jews?’”
A warmth spread within James as he recalled the labyrinth of drama and controversy. He answered with a smile.
“Do you remember who fought for your right to teach that course here?” asked Mary.
“Then you won’t be surprised to know that I want you to teach this course, and I want you to teach it at this college. I’m sceptical of the content—which is hardly surprising. But there’s no scepticism from me concerning your intentions, or your ability to execute upon them. I know you too well and I’ve known you for too long.”
“In fact,” continued Mary, “if I’d pushed much harder for you, I may have lost my job. The position of Dean is won via politics as much as competence. I fought a harder battle than most to get it and I fight a harder battle than most to keep it.” Mary paused and studied the man in front of her. “My support for you almost gave them an opportunity to replace me.”
James, aware of the fact he could call Mary a friend, was unaware of the extent to which she acted as an agent on his behalf.
“I had no idea,” he said, humbled.
“That’s because I neither wanted nor needed you to.” Mary broke James’ eye contact and glanced to her right, at a photo frame on her desk. She turned back to him, a faint smile upon her face.
“‘Almost,’” she said, her thumbs now together and at rest. “Nevertheless, you can’t teach the course here.”
A silence took root and grew for ten, twenty, thirty heartbeats. Mary’s gaze settled on James’ face, but he stared to his left, out of the window and into the distance. Towards the wider world. He weighed risk, measured reward and considered the merit of his intuition. He tried, but it would not, and could not, be denied.
“I’m at the end of my leash?” asked James.
“Of course not,” said Mary, unable to hide her irritation.
James turned his head and catalogued the room. The floor, the ceiling, the windows and the views, the pictures on the wall and the spines of the books on the shelves. He said nothing while he tried to absorb everything.
“You’re always welcome to pitch new ideas for different courses,” said Mary, “for alternate lecture series, for one-off talks on things that fascinate you. If you propose something else you’ll have the benefit of the doubt. Despite your jester act, you’re liked by many who matter around here.”
James circled his eyes back to Mary’s but said nothing in response.
Mary sighed. “As much as I enjoy your company, James, I’ve got work to do. Robin’s on the other side of the door. She’s going to come in and inform me of all the demands on my time, then tell me I don’t have the space for most of them. She’s got my morning coffee too, and it’s getting cold.”
James twisted in his seat once more, scrutinising all.
“Anything else?” asked Mary.
“Yes,” said James, attention still elsewhere. “I need to thank you.”
James’ eyes snapped onto Mary’s. “For giving me sufficient incentive. I quit.”
James shrugged and smiled.
“It’s the start of the college year,” said Mary. “You have students, responsibilities. You almost have tenure. You can’t quit.”
James straightened and the smile dissolved. “Can’t I?”
“Well, you can, but why would you? No college in North America—in the world!—will give you the freedom you have here. You can do whatever you want.”
James barked a laugh. “Can I?”
Mary’s face ran the gamut from confusion to exasperation to polite fury in less than a second. She leaned forward. “Don’t be such a child.” She sat back.
“Nothing childish about it,” said James. “I feel like a kid making his first leap into adulthood. It’s exciting to be uncertain of so many things at once. Don’t worry. I’ll see out the year. But after that”—James brought his hands up and clapped them in front of his face—“poof. I’m out.”
“Where will you go? Other colleges won’t touch you. A few years ago, maybe. But now? When the whole higher-ed system is being eaten alive, when no one anywhere is stable? No way. No other college can have you, regardless of whether they want you.” A measure of desperation came into Mary’s voice. “And even if they did take you, they couldn’t give you what we have. What I have fought to give you. Think you’re constrained here? You’ll think other institutions a maximum security prison.”
“That’s why I’m going to create one,” said James. “My own.”
Mary laughed. James allowed her the moment of respite.
“Your sense of humour is underrated,” she said.
“I don’t jest.”
The remnants of laughter on Mary’s face disintegrated. “You should.”
Moments passed. Neither spoke. James sensed this to be both an end and a beginning. He didn’t want to exit the moment. He wanted to savour it but he knew reality was, in some ways, indifferent to his attempts to distort it. In others, he thought, it was surprisingly malleable.
He stood up.
“I’ll send my notice to Robin?”
Mary stood, too. She walked around the desk and came to a stop in front of James.
“You can always drop it off yourself. We don’t see each other as much as we used to.”
“True,” said James. “You’re always so busy.”
”One day, I’ll fetch your morning coffee.”
Mary raised her hand and placed it on James’ shoulder.
“I’d like that,” she said.
James raised his own hand to hers. He grasped it, brought it back down into the space between them and squeezed before he released it.
“Give my love to Jacob and the kids,” he said.
James turned and made for the door. As he reached for the handle, Mary spoke.
He stopped and looked over his shoulder. “Hmm?”
“I meant what I said.”
“So did I.”
- Barker: A Novel by Matthew Samuel Sweet
- Available on Amazon as an ebook (basically free) and a paperback: US – UK
- Read the post-project review here