Monday, December 6, 2010

Scenes from a failed novel: The heavy

Excerpt from a manuscript discovered in an abandoned cellar in a west coast city. Neighbors insist that the cellar has been boarded up since the early 1990s.

Edmond Volker's toupee was widely, if tacitly, regarded as the most pitiful example of a hairpiece in all of the Pacific Northwest Conference. If someone had torn the upholstery out of an old Chevy pick-up and fastened it to the man's head, in the dark, with loops of duct tape, the effect could not have been much worse. Yet, like Cyrano's nose, it was an extraordinarily dangerous feature even to notice, let alone to comment upon.

New grad students in his seminars were always easy to spot: Unpracticed but already warned by their peers, they diligently tried to focus their gaze anywhere but there. The result was a look of watery-eyed desperation, of glances darting here and there but always slinking home to that awful rug.

A year or two before Maggie had entered the program, a promising grad student named Calvin Bender had been washed out during his second semester. The first day of Volker's class, Bender had had the mortally bad luck to be seated directly across from him at the seminar table.

Witnesses later reported that, as the minutes ticked by, Bender slowly grew red-faced, the cords in his neck tightened, a thin sheen of sweat appeared on his face, until finally his whole frame began to shudder almost imperceptibly with the terrible strain of ignoring it. After about twenty minutes, his self-control abruptly cracked, if only for a split-second, and from that tiny chink emerged a sputtering giggle that in another second would have burst into a full-blown guffaw. Bender made an inspired but unsuccessful attempt to disguise the outburst as a sneeze. The result was a strangled paroxysm that sprayed his notebook with spit and snot and sent him tottering and reeling out of the room.

Volker had been answering a question from another student, and Bender's fit had caught him amid-sentence like a torpedo. He stared, white-faced but immobile, until the echo of Bender's footsteps had died away in the hallway. Then, with only the slightest twitch below one eye, he resumed precisely where he had left off.

It was over in an instant. Volker made no mention of the incident, then or ever. Bender had recently moved to the region from Arizona, and so the official story was that it had been "a reaction to the high local concentration of allergens." A few months later, of course, his unceremonious departure was explained by another official story: "Mr. Bender, despite his early signs of promise, just hadn't quite measured up to the program's standards after all." But everyone knew what had happened; everyone understood. Calvin Bender had snickered at the dean's hairpiece, and he had paid the price.

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