I decided for Halloween that I'd like to put up one of the creepier stories that I wrote for my Senior Project. It's pretty long, so I won't be offended if you don't read it. But I thought it might be cool to put up my writing for other folks to see. Its a story about a college professor, his gross dinner and his tawdry past. If you do read it, thanks!
Faculty dinners are a torturous bore. I had almost decided not to go. They always wanted to group us all together to discuss some dismal news, a budget cut or some overblown union conflict. They lure you in with the promise of a fine meal and bottles of wine, then broadside you with some parochial atrocity.
I was walking down, or rather, I was scraping along Miller St., enumerating all the reasons I hated going to these dismal affairs. I doubted that anybody would even miss the head of the English department at all, and it would be easy to play sick, being an old man. I had just about talked myself into truancy, turning around and retreating to my warm apartment, when I passed a pack of vagrants squatting along the building's foundation. There were at least ten of them, lying indiscriminately on blankets and propping themselves upon the wall. They were all men, bearded and stinking, that is, except for one misplaced child. A little girl, who was at once astonishingly thin and pale.
I was already in their midst, as they outstretched their rattling cans. It felt unmanageable to turn back, I didn't want to seem like I was avoiding them, or afraid of them. I had to march through their ranks. I decided to put a few quarters into the mooching hands of the one I assumed to be the girl's father. She was clinging near his arm, and whispered something in his ear as I passed by. As she tilted her head away from the vagabond's ear, I was struck by the beauty of her eyes. They were the softest, palest green, and seemed to shine from some inward light.
To my surprise, I found myself outside the restaurant very shortly after. My mind had been so consumed by that frail little girl, and those bright, beautiful eyes. I had wandered all the way there without realizing it. I was about to return to my original avoidance, when I was grabbed by the arm by the Dean, who greeted me with unaccountable exuberance. I was quickly conveyed into the private dining room where far-too familiar faces where already clucking about tenure policies. I ordered a glass of wine and did my best to convincingly mingle among people who seemed unconscious of my agitated groans. Now there was really no escape.
Things carried on as they usually did . People talking about their new books, complaining about how rude and entitled their students are, gossiping about the Chancellor. I, as usual, stayed quiet, counting the minutes in the meal, anxiously awaiting the arrival of the next course as soon as the first was put in front of me.
Hathaway finally arrived after I had drained my soup bowl. I was swallowing my second glass of pinot noir when he came running in, stammering over-loud apologies and awkwardly shaking his fraying attache case at his hip.
“I'm so sorry! You wouldn't believe the traffic on the way up, and I couldn't even find a
place to chain my bicycle...”
As his rambling excuses continued to flow out, I noticed his pant-legs were splattered with a dark brown filth. As he turned to shake the Bursar's hand, I noticed the stains were also dappled up his jacket's back. Had he been riding through a cow field? When I noticed he was shuffling over, extending his weather-chilled hand to me, I shuddered, unintentionally. I hoped none of my fellow dinner guests noticed. I had always had a hard time dealing with Hathaway. I had just became the head of the English department when he was hired to teach the Romantic poets to undergraduates. For whatever reason, he latched on to the idea of befriending me that first year, and was always dogging me around my office, wiping his nose on his sleeve and trying to discuss Lord Byron. It was oppressive! I avoided him as best I could and tried my hardest not to give him any impression of interest at all in his skinny, anxious person.
He's a rather pathetic case, though, and I do feel sorry for him. About five years ago, the poor man was on a sabbatical in Scotland. He was at Abbotsford, the Walter Scott homestead, when, well, nobody is quite sure how it happened, but he managed to poke his eye clear out on some ornamental sword. I assume he was giving it an examination in his own disgustingly exuberant way. He spent nearly three weeks in the hospital, and came back one month early with a rather realistic glass eye. Despite it's well crafted pupil, I couldn't quite get over the stiff mismatched gaze. That was nearly fifteen years ago, which I can hardly believe. I'm still agitated by his uneven stare, and his sniveling nervousness. I shook his hand though, of course.
“Glad you could finally grace us with your presence.”
“I'm so sorry, again. Did I miss anything important?”
“No.” I said plainly. Though truthfully, I hadn't been really paying attention much either. The Dean of Students had been blabbering on about some research grants and a rather sinister sounding ten-point plan. Whenever plans had points, it was bound to cost us funding. My meal was gently placed in front of me by a very attractive young girl in a lop-sided red bow tie. Bland Salmon. For years I had been religiously simple in my diet, in the dream of achieving longevity. It didn't seem to do much, at seventy five I was just as old as anybody else in my position. The worst part was, I wasn't prepared. Despite the years of prayers, the flimsy advice columns and magic potions. Even the daily rigor of calisthenics, glasses of red wine, merciless self-denial. It felt all for naught.
My body's deterioration was a cruel joke. Every new ache, and wrinkle felt like a sweltering bruise. My name now even served as a mockery, Nelson Balding, conspicuously absent of hair. Everyday I had to walk through this wretched campus, teeming with handsome, blithe young men and buxom girls in their prime of sweetness. Then I had to go home and look at my own sagging, feeble aspect. It hadn't always been this way. Once upon a time, I had a following here on campus. My classes were always overfilled, and girls would come to my office hours with hungry looks. More than a few were there solely to flirt.
I slept with some. Not many. Only the ones that I felt were mature enough to understand how our relationship must be. The ones who knew it was physical, intellectual and nothing more. The ones who really understood Proust. My favorite had been a brunette named Marie, an exchange student from Sweden, who shouted quotes from Tolstoy throughout. Where had the time gone? I've lost myself.
I was carefully digging through my pile of rice pilaf, when my fork struck something thick and stiff, hidden by the granular pile. I felt with the prongs of my implement to measure out the material's shape, avoiding drawing attention to my curious prodding. I glanced at the person next to me, the Provost, a skinny, bird-like women, was sneering over a plate of beef bourguignon.
“Weren't you at the Physics hiring committee last weekend?” She was asked by a fat man I didn't recognize, gesturing with a half-eaten roll.
“Yes!” Her voice was raspy and dry, “Isn't that a riot? What do I know about physics?”
I continued my excavation project, diverting all my attention to picking at the plate. As the grains fell away, my stomach began to contort. It arose from the ashes of my meal with a remarkable distinctness. Small but dense, the color of dirty snow, with a slender, arched bit jutting from the bottom. The two deep, round hollows of the side were aimed up at me, and seemed to be connecting with my gaze.
“Oh god! Oh god!” Gravelly screams spurted near my ear, spewed out by the Provost. “What is that! What is that! Oh god! What is that?”
I looked up and saw that she was standing now, her flimsy chair thrown to the ground behind her, pointing her bony finger violently toward my plate. Soon everybody was standing up and looking, a few men gagged. Nearly all the women were screaming.
Chairs scraped across the ground, water glasses overturned. I just sat there, with that same raw feeling in my stomach, my eyes flashing between the bedlam that surrounded me, and the bare rodent's skull, neatly nestled in the mound of multi-colored rice. The dinner adjourned early.
The managers gave everybody a full refund, and treated me with groveling, boot-licking deference. I'm sure they fully expected me to go immediately to the authorities, to shut them down, and sue the bow ties right off of them. I felt nauseous, and my knees were starting to dully throb. I just wanted to go home, I told them, don't worry. I just wanted to leave. Honestly, they should have been more concerned about my frantic colleagues than me. The Dean's wife was still crying these loud, nasally sobs that could have broken plate glass. Hathaway seemed totally disoriented, and kept asking the mortified wait staff where he had parked his bicycle. When one of the trustees started vomiting into a potted plant in the foyer, I took the opportunity to slip out without saying goodbye to any of them.
My apartment was dark when I finally got home, with only a square reddish outline, cast by the window, imposing itself on the faded wall. I stood in the dark awhile, my eyes casting its own images on the canvas of the dark. I perceived the outline of the gloomy skull, hovering above where my sofa would sit. It was soon enveloped by the horror of Hathaway's glass eye, floating pupil up in the thin brown broth of the Provost's meal. I kept the lights off even as I turned to climb the stairs, cautiously feeling the familiar steps with my feet. My brittle feet.
It seemed much later than nine. It seemed like I had been awake for an age. I clicked on the bedside lamp, a ghastly rococo looking thing a colleague gave me to celebrate my tenure. It gave the glass of my framed photographs, family portraits, past vacations, an impossible white glare, obscuring landmarks, and the expressions of faces. The thin glow made my room unfamiliar and dusty, the bed cold and strangely solid, like it was hewn from marble. I decided to avoid resting on its stone countenance and chose to tire my rambling mind and eyes with reading. My finger, my yellowed nails, ran across the bindings of my collection. I decided on Doctor Faustus, and slowly lowered myself into my window seat, unhappily aware of the soreness in the back of my thighs. I regretted walking from the restaurant.
I was distracted. The skull kept returning to my thoughts, meshed with the Provost's terrified shouts. I sat and watched the shadows pass and change in the alley, between my apartment building and the next. Garbage scraps mingled with misplaced leaves and pale swirls of light dust, blowing aimlessly in the confines of the brick-lined compartment. It was all rather subdued, save for the shadows of a few dirty cats, hopping in and out of a wet cardboard box. I pushed my slipping spectacles back up the bridge of my nose, fitting the cushions back into the red sweaty indents habitual wearing wrought. They slid together like puzzle pieces. I turned my eyes back to Marlowe, scanning some fading pencil-marked notes I made in the margins, when a sudden light movement, a brightness, heavily pulled my gaze. I was brought again to the window. The young beggar was there.
Her tiny frame, lit by some eerie glow, cast a long shadow. She was creeping with her hands outreached, walking with such careful, ginger steps. Her silvery hair hung loose around her slightly hunched shoulders. Her arms were bare in spite of the cold. Her feet were thick in black boots that seemed a great deal too large. I watched her move toward the wall, her fingers flexing open and shut into tight fists. It came upon me with sickening clarity that she might actually be blind as I watched her face strain, her mouth open and trembling. She felt along the array of overfilled dumpsters. The mangy cats stopped capering to watch her approach, cowering with their ears back. As her hand grazed the edge of their damp cardboard they erupted from their silence with strained yowls. One clamored away, loudly upending a metal bin, while the other harshly struck, clawing at the groping child's arm before skittering into some dark corner. The girl threw herself back from the scene frantically, shielding her face with one arm, and swatting at the air with the other. Her hair flew wildly unkempt as her frail body tumbled awkwardly to the ground.
I don't remember how my muscles and bones overtook my fatigue, I don't remember how my knees regained their forgotten elasticity, but before my mind had recovered its place, I was ankle deep in dirty rotting leaves. The little girl was on her hands and knees, pushing her pale thin fingertips between the cracks in the pavement. Her breathing was deep and quick. I extended my hand to her, but her eyes stayed fixedly downcast. She was blind.
“Hello? Little girl? Are you ok?” Her head turned sharply toward me, her hair still madly
skewed across her face.
“Who's there?” Her voice was very small, but surprisingly deep.
“My name is Doctor Balding. Are you ok?” I ventured to touch her shoulders, and guide her to standing. Her skin was cold, much colder than the air that surrounded us. As I hoisted her to her feet, she began to breath unsettlingly quickly, a precursor to tears. She pushed at her face with her raw bluish palms.
“Dear, you're freezing,” I heard my voice croak, “come inside.” Her eyes once again fixed themselves on my voice, her lids fluttered opened. I saw beneath her shining lashes her pupils, the color of faded mint green and swollen with sadness.
I left the little one in the living room. She sat silently, wrapped in a colorful crocheted blanket on my sofa, smiling, staring into nothing. She had been very quiet as we climbed the stairs back up my apartment. It had been a slow ascent, but she didn't seem to be bothered by it. Unlike some hyper-active, indolent brat, who would clamor obnoxiously ahead of me, she kept closely by my side, grasping my hand and shuffling slowly in her monstrous boots. The only sound that escaped her was an unhealthy sniffling.
I sifted through my cupboards trying to find some food that a child would like. I had managed, so far in my life, to remain childless, and thus my house was free of anything with a cartoon character on it or a prize in the box. I settled on butter cookies with little glazed chess pieces on them. She remained in her silent satisfaction as I arrayed them on a small tea saucer, and poured a tall glass of milk.
“There now, I hope you like cookies,” I said as I pressed the glass into her hands. Her skin was still fantastically cold, even now that she was wrapped in warmer layers. She didn't say a word, but maintained her feverish smile, as she brought a sweet bishop to her lips.
“What's your name, little girl?” I asked as I sat beside her on the couch. Her smile seemed to grow wider at this. She pressed her fingertips together as she finished chewing.
“Cassandra.” Her voice again startled me, it was so low it defied the the slightness of her figure, the slenderness of her uncovered arms.
“Cassandra. That's a very beautiful name. How old are you Cassandra?”
At this, she shook her head playfully and laughed, wagging her loose hair. She greedily pushed another cookie into her mouth, leaving a few stray crumbs on her lips. Her strange bluish lips.
“Do you live nearby here? Where are your mommy and daddy?” Her blank eyes flickered around the room as she giggled some more. She brought her hands slowly to her chest and began to crack her knuckles, slowly, one finger at a time. The noise was piercing and full, ten methodical hollow snaps. I questioned her again, but she kept to her unarticulated withdrawn laughter.
What to do about this little girl? I felt very confused about what to offer her next. She was so quiet and unhelpful at announcing her needs. She mostly stayed silent and withdrawn, or inwardly chuckling at some unheard joke. Perhaps she was just happy to be warm? I decided that when it came to parenting, I was a hopeless case. I needed help from somebody who understood children. But who? I mentally sorted through all the women in my department who had sought maternity leave. They might know what this poor little blind girl expected of me. Yet, I couldn't bring myself to look up their numbers and call them. The situation was just too strange. It would look all wrong to them. I would become, in their feminine eyes, the specter of some kidnapper from a crime drama.
Then, it hit me! Someone who was accustomed to young children and the loss of sight. I looked up Hathaway's number in my day planner, inked hurriedly in the margins. How many times had he elbowed pictures of his little darlings under my nose, to boast with a saccharine fatherly pride? It was finally relevant to me.
As the phone rang by my ear, I wondered about Cassandra, sleeping so peacefully on the sofa. She lay down to rest so peculiarly, giggling even her eyes closed. Her slumber seemed to come instantaneously, as she lay flat, facing upward on her back. The ringing clicked off, and I heard the drowsy, distracted voice of Hathaway muffled slightly at the other end.
“Hathaway? It's Balding calling.” I said briefly
“Balding!” his voice amplified ten-fold “Jesus! What happened to you? You just
“Well, I understand, the whole...dinner thing, it was rather traumatizing. But you should have told somebody you were leaving. The Dean made us stay for an hour looking for you under tables!”
“Well it's a shame you left too, the restaurant wrote a big check to you to pay for your distress. The manager and the owner were going to present to you themselves. They were ready to do just about anything to keep you quiet! Then we all looked around and you were nowhere to be found!”
“But how do you think it got in there? You know,” his voice lowered again, “the bones? It's not like something like that just falls in a plate of rice. It almost looked like it had been buried or...”
“Oh, right sorry. I'm sure that this is still pretty horrid for you. I told myself I wasn't going to bring it up. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to bring it up. But the whole situation is so irregular. It's the sort of thing you only hear about on the news or something. The whole thing is just too bizarre. How does a skull get into food like that? So neatly preserved and placed...”
“Well, I've got to go!” I had practically yelled into the receiver before throwing it down.
Damn Hathaway. His speech was like an eternal barrage of words, he never stops. He just wanted to talk about that damned skull. That damned skull, looking up from my plate and meeting my eyes. It stared right at me, compelling me to return the gaze from the depths of those dark hollows. Damn! I tried not to think of it anymore. As I walked back out to the living room, my hands were shaking more than their usual dull tremor. Cassandra was still there, sleeping soundly on her back. I had resolved to call the police in the morning.
My bed felt so uncomfortable that night, the sheets as coarse as paper bags on my skin. I laboriously tossed and turned, tangling myself in blankets. Light flickered oddly through my bedroom window. I had neglected to shut the curtain. I looked toward my alarm clock. Midnight. Wasn't it midnight hours ago? It seemed like this night was never ending, the hours perpetually sustaining themselves over the course of days, of lifetimes! I rose to draw shut the curtain and decided to get a glass of water, and maybe look in on that little girl. Her face was so familiar somehow. I knew I had seen her before somewhere, other than that street corner. But where?
As I opened the door, a rush of air pushed past me, flattening my pajamas against my body. I normally slept nude, but thought I should dress in case Cassandra woke up fearful in the night. It suddenly struck me that her blindness made that an issue of lesser consequence. I was also struck by the sudden change in the air as I entered the hall.
Everything was cold and sharp. I glanced at the framed art in the wall and thought, in the darkness, I saw frost forming in the corners of the frame. My skin raised into rough goosebumps along my arms. The air also felt thicker, like a wet humidity. My lungs were laboring, my breath was pinched, wheezing. When I reached the top of the stairs, I leaned heavily on the wall, my shoulders slumping into it. The hall seemed suddenly lit by a strange bright light. Perhaps the full moon lit through the window behind me? It seemed too strong for that. I closed my eyes and tried to regain my breathing. It was alarmingly harsh. I tried to calm my pulse.
When I opened my eyes again, I was startled to see Cassandra standing at the bottom of the stairs. She was looking up toward me, smiling, her stare aimed at me with that same unerring glare I found on my dinner plate. She reached up toward me, and pulsated her hands between fists and flattened palms again, her lips pursed shut. My breathing had calmed slightly, but there was an intolerable buzzing rising in my ears. It asserted itself above all other sounds; my thoughts were subdued. All I could focus on was the grinding, low buzzing and Cassandra as her lips parted into that same accustomed grin.
I slowly, clumsily descended the stair towards her. My ears were aching with this terrible sound. I ran my hands against the wall to steady myself, and ended my descent by crumbling to my knees at the bottom of the stair. I had lost my footing, my knees slapped heavily against the hardwood floor. I was at Cassandra's feet. She was glancing downward, her eyes aimed now at my neck, but her arms still remained lifted.
Flattened palm, tightened fists, skin stretched then tucked and hidden behind fingers. The brightness of this strange moon cast the whole hall in a cool glow. My chest felt as though it was going to cave in from the horrible vibrations of this growling, terrible sound. It only became louder and more excruciating. Cassandra raised her arms higher, reaching above her head, still grasping at the air.
Her lips parted. Her chest rose. As the air passed between her lips, the deep, horrible vibrations increased in intensity, then dropped away, like a wave breaking on the shore. I knew at that moment that this intense, inescapable grinding was coming from within this tiny girl. Her breath was generating these terrible tones. I looked toward her face, which was tilted slightly, still marked by that unaccountable half-smile. I grasped feebly around the hem of her dirty skirt and called up to her;
“Cassandra,” I felt dizzy, “Cassandra? Are you making that sound?”
The harsh deep tones shuddered inwardly, and returned. At the very tip of the noise, I could hear the girls voice speaking. How high-pitched it now seemed in comparison to this endless dirge.
“It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.” Her voice roared, as she slowly lowered her flexing arms from above her head. Her voice was terrible to listen to. I pressed my hands into my ears to mute it, but the sound only seemed to rise in intensity again.
“Nelson,” her voice commanded, but her lips were still, “What a strange illusion it is to suppose that beauty is goodness.”
She brought her cold hand to my cheek. It felt like ice on my skin, burning with cold. She cupped my cheeks like a concerned mother, commanding my face to meet her eyes. The buzzing had wracked my body with pain, but it was starting to melt away. Cutting through the low tones, Cassandra's voice became a more pronounced pitch.
“Oh Nelson,” she moaned, moaning like a woman would, “If you want to be happy, be.”
How quickly her face changed to me. I saw it all so clearly. The fullness of her lips. The paleness of her complexion, the gleam of her eyes, even the pointedness of her ears. All but her hair, silver instead of black, matched the aspect of my gentle Marie. My mind matched her with a memory. Marie on her back, writhing in the sheets. Her eyes closed, lips parted. She moans.
I ripped my face from the girls cold hands, and turned, scrambling up the stairs on all fours like a frightened animal. At the top, I rose clumsily and took a step back from the edge of the landing. Cassandra was still there, staring up at me. The buzzing rose as she took a long, deep breath. She raised her arms again, and once again pulled in fistfuls of cold, deathly air.
“Daddy?” her voice was a whisper, but it reverberated in my mind like a piercing screech. I fell down again to my bruised knees. The eerie glow of the room overwhelmed me. The buzzing wouldn't stop, it was growing louder and louder again. I called up a memory, Marie on the last day of class, waiting for me outside my office door. Me, doubling back, avoiding her. I knew she was attached. I couldn't afford to perpetuate it. I threw away her letters, unopened.
As I crumpled further into a heap, I realized how to stop this torturous noise. I knew how to end this sound, this pain. I knew how to appease Cassandra. I brought my hands together into a neat point, and felt the cool clamminess of my pressing palms. Another memory, even through the sickening dark rumbling that shook my mind, of the goodnight prayers of my childhood, pushed from behind onto pious knees by my bedside. My chest ached. I rushed back up to the edge of the stair, and cast my body through the air's thickness, diving from the top step. For a long-stretched instant, I floated, effortlessly above the stair, as though I was hovering, suspended from a thin string. All the pains that I had carried through the day had vanished, and my body was perfect and new. How soothing to be carried through air like a breath of nothingness. Beneath me, Cassandra laughed and turned in tight circles, gleeful that I recognized her mind. The terrible buzzing stopped, and was replaced by a new kind of silence.