Discover more from Soaring Twenties
An Unexpected Guest
A Short Story
You may remember Adam Kozak (Adam Writes) from the excellent short story Good News that he contributed here a little while ago. You may have also caught some of his excellent poetry both here and on his personal website.
Well even with this pedigree he has outdone himself today and generously offered up an outstanding piece of short fiction (if just under 7k words can be called ‘short’ in the low-attention span TikTok era).
I won’t say anything else other than- as I do every time: Enjoy.
I am one very much for the comfortable stay-at-home life, as well as the occasionally-going-out-and-having-a-good-time-life. OGOHGTL, as everyone knows, for short. I don’t take well to disruptions to the routine of things, my routine. Routine is my oyster, as someone once said. It might have been Shakespeare, or maybe Milton.
Easing into my late twenties and my fifth year of grad school, frat parties and keg stands are for a younger generation. But give me a Friday night closing a pleasantly busy bar at 2am with good company, me and my colleagues commiserating together, and I’m happy as a clam in chowder, if clams were happy in chowder and over the moon to be eaten. You get the picture.
I say colleagues but that’s a bit pretentious isn’t it? What I mean is fellow grad students, comrades in arms, buddies in the trenches of university life who chose to stay long after their four years of undergrad were up or who came back after years out in the real world.
There’s a group of us that hangs out together, found each other one way or another as you do in the corners of libraries and coffee shops around campus. There’s John Wanlock, a classicist, studies Latin poetry and takes Catullus and Martial very seriously, especially the naughty bits (don’t get him started on primary obscenities); Norah Henderson, the perennial optimist, works on 20th century Russian novels and swears the Romanovs escaped the revolution; Larchland “Larch” Carter, studies sociology, a communist and activist, always full of plans for overthrowing the system (and always asking for money for said plans) but never quite gets around to it; Marie Dahinda, the Spanish PhD candidate, sleeps with a copy of Don Quixote under her pillow and swears up and down she won’t work as a translator at the UN (she probably will); Christoph Stronghurst, the atheist studying Christian apologetics (how’s that for cognitive dissonance?); Sarah Oneida, also a classicist, studies Greek tragedy, particularly Aeschylus, which is Greek no one can read, always has a book with her, and quotes Greek tragedy in Greek to make a point but never translates.
And there’s me, Hugo Davenport. Classical philologist. Latinist or Hellenist depending on the day. Maybe I’ll write on Livy or Herodotus. Could do epic poetry, but not Homer. He’s been done to death and lies dead and buried under a pile of scholarship. In Latin there are so many choices, though anything later than Ovid’s Metamorphoses, like the Flavian epics, is frankly a waste of time. Who would read those? Vergil then? Could do the foundation of Rome in Vergil and Livy; that’d be interesting.
You see my predicament. It’s generally easy enough to get through coursework. Just take enough Greek and enough Latin, pass a few tests (they’re not easy) and you’re in the home stretch. But then you’ve got to actually make a decision on a topic for your dissertation and get on with the thing and that decision is entirely up to you. Unless your advisor says no. Then you have to pick something else.
It’s a not entirely unpleasant kind of limbo, in a masochistic sort of way. And yet, Fate has a way of sneaking up on you and putting you in a rear naked choke or at least tickling you in an uncomfortable sort of way. It varies.
One day, a glorious July morning in early April, into this slightly soupy yet comfortable morass of grad school life stepped Uncle Baxter.
Uncle Baxter is one of those larger than life figures you read about in books or magazines that are always Doing Something Important and Getting Things Done. He is also my sometime patron d’arte and benefactor. As a bachelor with no children to dote on, he had picked me to support with the occasional donative. He sends checks and I say thank you very much.
I hadn’t heard from him in months and the last I heard he was in Venezuela or Inner Mongolia or New York City or some other godforsaken place being a Captain of Industry or whatever it is he does. So it was quite a surprise when there was a knock at my door and there on the mat was the man himself, every last bit of him and then some.
“Hugo, how are you?” said Uncle Baxter in a voice that might knock over a freight train, at least sideways if not lengthways.
“Uncle Baxter,” I said, and that was all I could manage for the moment while I steadied my buckling knees.
He wore a gray suit with a white shirt unbuttoned at the collar and black shoes and sported a healthy tan across his good-looking, middle aged face.
He slapped me on the shoulder, dropped his bag by the door, and swept past me into the room. The apartment seemed to shrink around him, the couch and easy chair closing in, the distinction between living room and kitchen disappearing. Or perhaps he grew to fill it. What I’m trying to say is that he was a big man literally and metaphorically. He stood six feet two inches tall soaking wet and probably weighed no less than two hundred and eighty pounds in his bare feet. And that’s solid mass, a healthy mix of bulging muscle covered by a generous layer of blubber. He liked exercise and food in equal measure and the two combined to form a spectacular kind of singularity.
I watched him bounce around the room while somehow avoiding the clutter and stacks of books, flick open a curtain, flip through a book or two while I attempted to close the door behind me, an act I struggled with because my knees were still buckling underneath me.
I’m not one given to getting over shocks easily. The trouble was that the last time we had spoken my uncle had given me something of an ultimatum about finishing my studies and I had given him certain assurances that progress on my dissertation was being made and now the proverbial chicken had returned to its henhouse for the night.
What’s more, while I pay my bills by teaching undergraduate courses at the university, my uncle generously helps out with the occasional shortfall and plugs the gaps between my net and the total cost of living, which was sometimes substantial even in a relatively small college town like Florence, home to the aptly named University of Florence.
I poured myself into a chair and tried not to look too pathetic as I tapped a pack of American Spirits on my knee so spastically that I might have managed S-O-S or the opening scene of Hamlet in morse code.
“Smoking? Really, Hugo?” He clicked his tongue in a disapproving fashion.
I cleared my throat nervously, jammed the pack in my pocket, and stuck the loose cigarette behind my ear.
“So, how’s the dissertation coming along?” Uncle Baxter looked at me with a twinkle in his eye. “Ha ha, I’m just giving you a hard time. I bet you get tired of that question.”
I smiled weakly. “I do, I do indeed.”
“So how is it?”
My spine went rigid. “It’s okay,” I said, the lie tingling on my tongue.
“You haven’t done anything have you?” He looked stern.
“No,” I said, sinking further into the chair.
“Hugo, Hugo. I remember a certain conversation we had about that,” he said sternly. He let me stew for a moment, then a smile broke out on his face.
He grinned. “You’re probably wondering why I’m here.”
“The thought did cross my mind.”
“Well, I’m glad you didn’t finish yet because,” he paused, “I’m here to stay.”
That was a shock. It was one of those moments when one understands perfectly well the grammar, syntax, and meaning of a phrase and it hits home somewhere deep in the subconscious, punches you right between the navel and the testicles, and yet fails to really register in the conscious mind, the tip of Freud’s iceberg, the posterior superior temporal lobe, the part of your gray matter that’s reading this right now. The train was still boarding at that particular station.
“I’m here to stay.”
If I hadn’t been sitting I would have reeled, like you hear about in so many cheap novels and weekly serials. They do a lot of reeling in those stories.
The chair caught my already slumping frame. Had there been an audience they might have rolled their eyes at my apparent theatrics.
“What do you mean ‘here’ and ‘stay’?”
“I want to experience university life. I never went to college, much less grad school, so I thought to myself, what better way to do that than to have my nephew as my guide. I’ve been out in the jungle—
“New York. I’ve been out in the jungle—”
“Ever listen to Guns n’ Roses?”
“No—don’t interrupt. As I was saying, I’ve been out there,” he waved his hand toward the window, “hacking and slashing my way through the jungles of the corporate world and I get to the top and what do I realize?”
“You forgot your wallet at home.”
“What? No—I get to the top and what do I realize?”
“Not your wallet? Then I haven’t the foggiest.”
“There’s nothing there, that’s what I realize.”
“Nothing at all.”
“Nothing at all?”
“That’s what I said. So I go to the real jungle.”
“The Congo. And I get out there and see all there is to be seen and I think to myself, ‘I wonder what Hugo is up to. I never went to college. Let’s go see what that’s all about.’ And here I am.”
“Here you are.” I tried to steady myself by focusing on practical concerns. “What hotel are you staying at?”
“Yes, a hotel or perhaps motel. It’s a large building subdivided into individual rooms each with a number on the door and there’s a man in his late forties at the front desk named Harold who gives you a keycard for one room for which you pay for the duration of your stay. A hotel.”
“I know what a hotel is, Hugo.”
“Ah, from your tone I wasn’t sure. Now that we’ve got that cleared up, where are you staying?”
“I don’t think I know that one. Is it new? I didn’t think there were any new building developments in town but I don’t get out that much.”
“Don’t be an idiot. Here, Hugo.” Uncle Baxter pointed to the floor.
“Here here?” I said, pointing to the floor.
“Where else? You’ve got an extra room, right? We’ll be roommates.”
That took the wind completely out of my sails and raked me from bow to stern with round shot. “Yes, there is a spare room,” I said miserably at the thought of having to vacate my office and give it up to the intruder.
I liked being able to get up and go to work in a different room instead of having to write my dissertation in the same place that I slept, or not write as the case may be. It was a small physical distinction but it made a significant difference when not working at my on-campus office, which was not ideal as it was shared with fellow grad students, or at a cafe, which was not ideal because I had to pack up every time I had to go to the bathroom which is frequent when consuming copious amounts of coffee, the drug of choice for graduate students everywhere.
I don’t mean to be ungrateful but a man’s home is his castle and he doesn’t take kindly to giving up scarce square footage to every passerby looking for a room, even if he is your uncle who sends you checks.
I had the feeling that a stronger man wouldn’t allow his uncle to move in like this but there was no “allowing” in this case. Uncle Baxter was there and seemingly not going anywhere for the moment.
“Are you applying to a program?” I asked, looking for a possible loophole to the uncle’s plan.
“Yes, I think so. Haven’t decided which program yet. I’ll start with the MA of course. Perhaps Linguistics or History or Classical Philology.” I winced. “I’m not sure yet but I do know that I want to experience the atmosphere, the ecosystem of grad life to get the flavor, the taste, the je ne sais qois-ness of it. The exact program will come later. For now, the pursuit of knowledge by observing my knowledgeable and experienced nephew is what I’m after.”
I shrugged. “You could always quit. Plenty do.”
Offense showed up to the open house, put in an offer, signed the mortgage, and took up occupancy on Uncle Baxter’s face. “I’ve never quit anything in my life. Besides, I haven’t enrolled in anything yet. I just want to experience the lifestyle.” He began to look dreamy-eyed, like a small child talking about Christmas morning. “The dense philosophical conversations, important conferences with important, deep-thinking scholars, exploring the world of ancient literature like a new woman.”
I attempted not to cringe.
“That’s what you do, right? Ancient literature?”
“Yes. You’ve got the idea. We’re knee deep in philosophical discussions and ancient lit around here,” I said.
On the inside, I attempted not to panic. I tried to imagine where I might find dense philosophical discussions, deep-thinking scholars, and explorations of ancient women—no—ancient literature, well, I suppose ancient women too. He didn’t have the slightest clue about grad school or the lives of the academic class. I experienced a sinking sensation that there was nothing I could do to live up to Uncle Baxter’s expectations and that, in the end, when he realized the truth that he would leave and try to take me with him.
The thought churned inside my belly, roiled my stomach, bounced off my liver, and finally struck my spleen dead center, which hurt quite a bit.
“So where to first?” said Uncle Baxter.
I tried to form a coherent thought. “Why don’t tomorrow we go to…to the department, yeah, tomorrow which is a Monday, I believe, we’ll go and see who’s around and we can talk ancient literature…?”
Sweat beaded on my forehead.
“Excellent.” Uncle Baxter clapped his hands, then checked his watch. “How about an early lunch?”
I followed him out and hoped that I would find courage and an appetite on the way.
The next day was indeed a Monday and Uncle Baxter accompanied me to the Classics department which was housed on the third floor of a hundred-year-old converted dormitory. There wasn’t a floorboard that didn’t creak or a window that opened in the whole place. That along with the warm musty smell of mildew gave the impression that the whole place had been sealed up, entombed, and mothballed sometime in the 20s.
As we creaked our way up to the third floor I considered my options frantically, wondering how I could induce two or more professors or grad students to spontaneously produce an impressive conversation on philosophy, literature, or philology to impress the dear old uncle.
I looked up and down the narrow hallway. One door was ajar and I seized on it like a drowning rat reaching for a scrap of flotsam.
“Professor Malvern, this is my uncle, Baxter Davenport. Uncle Baxter, this is Professor Malvern. I’ve taken lots of his classes and really enjoyed them. He’s an authority on Latin epic and poetics and all that, very impressive, lots of scholarship, a couple books too.” I realized, to my horror, that I was babbling in an attempt to stall.
Professor Malvern didn’t move, eyes focused on the computer screen, fingers doing a Charleston on the keyboard.
Uncle Baxter looked at me, his arm partially extended anticipating a handshake from the professor. I attempted to reassure him with a nod and a wink that I was fully in control of the situation.
Professor Malvern struck the keyboard with finality and turned to face us. Framed by the sun soaked window his hawkish face and bald pate gave me the impression I was being eyed by an enormous bird of prey deciding whether or not to eat me for lunch.
“Hello, Hugo.” His voice was absolutely level. “Mr. Davenport, good to meet you. You’ll forgive me, I was just finishing up an email.”
“Of course, no problem,” I hurried to say. “Anything interesting?”
One eye narrowed. “Nothing interesting about discussing money with the provost, although everything’s interesting when it’s a matter of self-preservation.” He shook his head. “Bureaucrats love cutting programs.”
I chuckled nervously, acutely aware of the overwhelming presence of Uncle Baxter next to me.
“I was just telling Uncle Baxter a bit about your work on epic.”
The two men shook hands and their auras competed for space in the room.
Professor Malvern leveled his gaze at Uncle Baxter. “You’re a scholar, Mr. Davenport?”
“No, I wouldn’t say that. I made my money in textiles and heavy industry and it’s, to be completely honest, a bit shallow so I thought I’d pay my nephew a visit and see what wonderful mysteries university life had to offer.”
“Mhmm, mm, yes. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it put like that but, yes, sure.”
Eager to push things along I interjected: “How’s your next book coming along, Professor?”
Professor Malvern sat down and leaned back in his chair. “Fine, fine. I’m grappling with that old gate of horn versus the gate of ivory chestnut in Aeneid 6. Horsfall says one thing, he takes the argument all the way back to Frazer’s Golden Bough and there you are up the Styx without a paddle since, of course, the whole poem was never finished and Vergil himself, allegedly,” he lifted a warning finger, “wanted the thing burned. So what are we to make of such a colossal contradiction in the very heart of the poem? Mm? The gate of ivory, the gate by which the shades of the dead send false visions, falsa insomnia, to the world above, is the very gate which Aeneas uses to return to the world of the living from the Underworld. Then again, perhaps there is no contradiction. Aeneas isn’t dead so why should he pass through the gate of horn? Then there are the materials themselves. Take the adjective corneus—”
“I don’t want it. You take it,” I said, chuckling at my own joke. My smile faded at the expression on Professor Malvern’s face.
“Take the adjective corneus. Is it actually referring to horn, as in, the material of a bull’s horns, which would complement nicely the ivory of the other gate, or is it actually corneus—note the difference,” he lifted a finger again, “—referring to the cornel tree, which is little more than a large shrub with yellow flowers in spring, and not to horn at all. And does any of this matter if Vergil never finished editing the thing?” He sighed. “I should have written on the Georgics. At least we know he finished that one.”
“How do you know that he—what’s his name?” said Uncle Baxter.
“How do you know Vergil didn’t finish the other one?”
Professor Malvern sat up excitedly. “An excellent question. Right to the point. I like that. Well the clearest indicator is that there are incomplete lines and…”
They went on like that for some time. Uncle Baxter’s inquiring mind would ask about the littlest details and Professor Malvern was only too happy to oblige.
I was happy to stand and watch Uncle Baxter indulge his curiosity and get quite the education in P. Vergilius Maro. As someone once said, when others speak, something something to seek. I can’t remember who exactly it was or what he said but you get the idea.
Twenty minutes later Uncle Baxter and I found ourselves back outside.
Uncle Baxter couldn’t contain himself. “That is what I’m talking about. What an intellect. Who knew there was so much to know about Latin poetry.”
“I did, actually,” I said.
“That Malvern—that’s a man who really enjoys his work. It’s not even work to him, I bet.” Uncle Baxter was practically skipping through the quad. “That’s it. I’m doing Classical Philology. Do you think they’ll let me start right away?”
“I sure hope not,” I said under my breath.
They just might, I thought miserably. With money like his, why wouldn’t they? Before he’d even graduated every administrator and bureaucrat would come swarming out of every office, closet, and basement in every building on campus like a horde of hungry rats and would be knocking down his door looking for donations and endowments.
My heart was in my shoes and oozing out of my socks at the increasingly likely prospect of Uncle Baxter joining me at school. There are times in life when you find yourself taking a long, hard look at things and, try as you might, you’re unable to see the bright side. You work hard, well, not that hard, to develop a routine whereby you can live alone, do whatever you want, study some Latin and Greek on occasion when Fate slaps you in the face with a hand shaped like your uncle.
The next day Uncle Baxter woke me at six-thirty. I say Uncle Baxter but he was not the proximate cause. One thing you should know about Uncle Baxter is that he likes jazz. Not smooth jazz, but jazz jazz—Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie—loud, blaring trumpets. I wouldn’t mind it on occasion but I certainly do not like it at six-thirty in the morning. I need my sleep and even when I’m out until two in the morning, I make sure I get my eight hours.
That morning, I first felt a kind of tingling in the back of my sleeping mind, somewhere on the border between sleep and waking. Further scrutiny revealed this was not a dream. The tingling became a thumping then a blaring, shrill, piercing note, over and over.
I stuffed my head in a pillow and cursed my fate.
Had I been able to fall back asleep Uncle Baxter would have woken me again when he came barging into my room at seven. That’s not an hour I normally find myself taking in the day and I was less than pleased to see the old bastard and I absolutely did not tell him so.
He bounded around the room like a giant puppy and I did my best to ignore him.
“What are we doing today?”
“Good thing I got you up then.”
“I teach in—” I checked the time, “five hours.”
“Well, nothing like getting an early start on the day. Breakfast?”
“None for me, thanks.”
He headed to the kitchen, a hunch confirmed by the sound of plates, pans, and glasses jangling, coffee grinding, eggs breaking, and toast toasting, which is admittedly a subtle sound but one is particularly sensitive at seven in the morning.
I put on my teaching uniform (jeans, a collared shirt, and a gray cotton blazer) and went out for a coffee, ill-feeling preventing me from joining a far-too chipper Uncle Baxter in the kitchen.
I took the pleasantly worn terrazzo stairs two at a time and emerged onto the street of quiet little downtown Florence, so named, obviously, because the city and its environs were like the Florence of Italian fame in no way whatsoever.
Two storey brick buildings lined Main Street, the original edifices of the town, founded near the turn of the last century. Banks and butcher shops had given way to tattoo parlors, secondhand book stores, and coffee shops, one of which, the aptly named Jittery Scholar, was right around the corner from my apartment.
I was struck by the warm familiar smell of coffee and baked goods, which helped a little to wake me up. The Jittery Scholar catered to the local grad student population and as a result was pleasantly hipsterish with chalkboard menus, reclaimed wood tables, and plenty of exposed lightbulbs but still exuded a feeling of lived-in comfort aided by the numerous cozy chairs jammed into every corner.
“Double espresso and a croissant please, Janie.”
I handed over a few bills and exact change, dropped a dollar in the tip jar, and sighed.
“What’s the matter, Hugo?”
Janie was the owner and proprietor of the Jittery Scholar, a short brunette in her mid-forties comfortably dressed in jeans and a t-shirt whose appearance (she was perennially covered in flour and coffee grounds) belied her intellect, something which I had discovered on a previous occasion, but that’s a story for another time.
I explained my predicament and the events up to that point.
“So he’s here to stay, huh?”
“He was so interested in the cool part of university life that I’ve been trying to manufacture interesting events. But now he’s talking about enrolling.”
She thought for a moment, her normally active brow placid.
“Why don’t you actually show him what it’s like?” she finally said.
I frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I know he’s your uncle and he throws cash your way sometimes but why are you trying to impress him? Show him what grad school is actually like. Once he realizes it’s not what he expected he might leave.”
“That might just work. Janie, you’re gorgeous.”
I downed the espresso then munched on the croissant on the way back to the apartment, cautious hope swelling in my breast.
Uncle Baxter bounded eagerly in front of me, buoyed by the conversation with Professor Malvern the day before, so eagerly in fact that I struggled to keep up.
“What’s on the agenda today?”
“A myth? How can it be a myth?” Brief puzzlement, then he continued. “Surely we’re going someplace real, someplace concrete. Or do you mean ‘myth’ in the sense of a narrative? In that, everything has a story, a discrete narrative structure, and we’re a part of it. We’re on a journey, one of the most basic types of stories, and therefore a ‘myth’ at its most fundamental.”
“Our chat with Professor Malvern yesterday really had an impact on you.”
“Nothing. Myth is Myth class, Classical Mythology, which undergrads take and I teach.”
“So I was right.”
He laughed, drunk with newfound knowledge and vocabulary, like a toddler that’s found a copy of On the Genealogy of Morality and waves it around with reckless abandon with the safety off.
Even though he sat all the way in the back of the class, I could see Uncle Baxter’s face begin to lose its glow throughout the hour. First a few students had shuffled in late, interrupting my opening remarks on the role of fate in Homer’s Iliad. Then the yawning started. I opened the blinds in an attempt to wake everyone up but it didn’t help.
Teeth were then pulled attempting to get more than one or two tryhards to participate in discussion. By the end, the malaise that the entire class exuded had taken hold of Uncle Baxter. I alone was immune (just barely) because, with many years of practice, I had long ago set my expectations in the basement and forgotten them there.
“What did you think?” I said cheerily to Uncle Baxter after class.
He wore a slightly puzzled expression. “My main takeaway was that undergrads aren’t too interested in Homer.”
“That’s very perceptive of you.”
“Don’t patronize me. How many times a week do you have to do that?
He sighed. “What’s next?”
The prospect gave him renewed energy. He rubbed his hands together. “I wonder what we’ll talk about at the meeting. Latin lit? Greek? Ancient philosophy? I’d love to hear you all really get into it.”
I smiled knowingly. “All I’ll say is that I think you’ll be surprised.”
John, Sarah, several other grad students, and myself crowded around the table in the little departmental library and waited for Professor Riggs. I introduced Uncle Baxter and they acknowledged him with a polite smile and a nod. A few pleasantries were exchanged but most were still waking up and lamenting that the day of the week started with the letter M.
Uncle Baxter flitted around the room, as much as a two hundred and eighty pound man can flit, examining the book shelves full of moldering copies of Magoffin-Henry’s Latin First Year, Ashmore’s The Comedies of Terence, and Poteat’s Selected Letters of Cicero, and who could forget Neilson’s Greek Exercises (1809, Abridged and Revised in Syntax, Ellipsis, Dialects, Prosody, and Metaphrasis: To which is prefixed, A Concise, but Comprehensive Syntax for the use of Colleges, Academies and Schools and which the editors beg leave to dedicate to the patronage of the young gentlemen of the American Youth.)
After a few minutes Professor Riggs wafted into the room and descended into the chair at the head of the table. He was a short man with glasses, a long nose, a shock of white hair, and a generally vacant expression. He had the habit of looking at a spot some inches above your head when talking to you which made you feel as if neither of you were really there.
“Welcome. Let’s…get…started.” He uttered a small sigh. I could hear his bones rattle.
He took a long time to say anything as if saying anything worth saying required taking a long time to say, except that he never said anything worth saying.
He looked down at his hands then fixed his gaze on a spot in the middle of the table.
“I was reading Plutarch this weekend, from the Moralia, the treatise “On Exile,” and in there, he quotes Euripides who said that losing one’s country is the worst possible calamity. And I thought about that and it reminded me of when I was at Harvard studying with Sir Hugh Montgomery who, as you might have guessed was of British extraction, a Yorkshireman, long dead now, died back in seventy-three, heart attack or cancer, I think, well he as an Englishman of course had in a sense lost his country having come to the US to teach, that’s how I came to meet him, and this would have been about nineteen fifty three or four, or could have been fifty-two, or was it fifty five?” His eyes glazed over a bit. “...and I remember the year because that was the year I was at Harvard.”
“Which year was that, professor?” I said.
Everyone shot glances at me that came out the back of my head and left a hole in the wall behind me. I stifled a laugh.
“Well, I think fifty-three. Yes, fifty-three. Yes, I’m sure of it because that was the year I met my wife. Met her at Harvard. Have I told you about her? Fantastic breasts.” The whole room squirmed. “But that’s a story for another time. Why don’t we go around the room and, yes, yes, I think so. Yes, let’s start with last week’s classes.”
A collective sigh. We’d made it through yet another Story Time with Professor Riggs™.
“John? Why don’t we start with you.”
And that’s how it went, each student in turn relating how each of our identical lessons with identical classrooms full of identically disinterested undergraduates proceeded the week before. No urgent issues, no suggestions for changes to the lesson plan, just recounting the previous week’s battles, each of our feints and counterfeints to try to engage the studentry ultimately ending in yet another defeat at the hands of Bored Undergraduatedom.
Outside the sun shone down on the greenery of campus and maple and sycamore trees towered overhead as we walked across the quad. Uncle Baxter took a deep, restoring breath of fresh air.
“What was that?”
I looked at Uncle Baxter. His suit had taken on a worn, rumpled look. Shadows played under his eyes.
“What? The meeting?” I said.
“The graduate teaching assistants all meet with Professor Riggs to talk about Myth classes for the previous week and the week ahead.”
“For god’s sake, why?”
He looked at me. “Money? What money?”
“Myth is a cash cow for the department. Six, seven-hundred students take it every semester. It qualifies as a gen. ed. requirement for undergrads so we pack them in and take their money. It pays professors’ salaries and the grad students’ wages and secures more funding for the department.”
“I thought I might get to listen to interesting conversations about literature and language and art, but it’s just about money.”
A shadow had descended on Uncle Baxter. It was a beautiful day on the quad. Green grass and sunshine, fresh air and laughter, but none of it seemed to touch him.
“I’m surprised. You of all people should know that everything’s about money. There’s still a whole week ahead of us and at least we have Friday night to look forward to.”
“What’s Friday night?”
“We’ll go out with John and Sarah and some of the other grad students I know. There are great bars in town.”
“I don’t really drink. You know that.”
I shrugged. “The rest of us will more than make up for it.”
Uncle Baxter brooded.
Wednesday turned to Thursday which—nevermind. You know the days of the week. Probably. If not, I don’t have the time to teach you.
Three more Myth classes and Latin 102 on Wednesday and Thursday, plus hours in the library and grading papers, took their toll on Uncle Baxter. I was pleased with this development though somewhere in my conscience I was beginning to feel a little sorry for him. The realities of university life can be a rude awakening.
On Friday I had Latin 541, a graduate seminar I had taken on a whim as I no longer needed the credits. The topic for the semester was Martial’s Epigrams, a book-length work of short, pithy, biting, naughty, sometimes inscrutable, some might say epigrammatic, poems dating from the second half of the first century Anno Domini.
“Uncle Baxter, class today might be one you might want to skip.” I made my way to the front door, not wanting to wait for an answer.
His voice floated from the tiny living room.
“It, uh—I don’t think it’ll be your kind of thing.”
This guy was like a dog that had caught a hold of something of which he really didn’t want to let go.
I mumbled something about obscenity.
“It’s Latin poetry, right? How bad could it be? Besides, if it’s anything like what Malvern was talking about with Vergil and Aeneas and all that, then it’ll be great.”
Two hours later Uncle Baxter floated in a daze through the classroom door and out into the hall.
“I tried to warn you. You probably never want to hear the word mentula again in your life,” I said chuckling.
“Warned me? Warned me?” He kept mouthing the phrase without any air coming out, apparently on the verge of apoplexy, a red tinge showing under his healthy tan. He found some air and gulped it down.
“What was that? An hour and a half of literary dissection of a humorous ancient text. That was a murder I just witnessed.”
I was a bit taken aback.
“What do you mean?”
“Martial. The man was clearly the George Carlin of his day. And here you are laying him out on a slab and cutting him apart—for what? To overanalyze the literary qualities of a comedian poet? He wrote short poems that were witty and cutting. He doesn’t sound like the kind of guy that would want his stuff picked apart by a bunch of failed writers pretending that scholarship about literature is more important than the literature, the act of creation itself.”
I was quite stunned. I knew, or thought I knew, my field’s failings but I hadn’t expected such a reaction from Uncle Baxter and I hadn’t expected this kind of righteous reaction from the old man. I found myself at a complete loss for words, as if my language faculties had slipped on a banana peel and were flopping around on the floor like a fish.
He marched on across the quad and I had a hard time keeping up.
I found my courage, and my voice, and attempted to challenge him. “What about Vergil? You didn’t have a problem with Malvern picking him apart?”
“Vergil’s different. He wrote in order to be analyzed. All the references to past epics. Didn’t you hear anything Malvern said?”
“I did,” I said meekly.
“What’s next?” he said without looking back.
“Dinner then drinks downtown,” I managed to say.
I lit the cigarette and shoved the pack of American Spirits back in my pocket. Smoke curled through the cool night air in the alley. String lights illuminated the stark brick walls a mere two storeys tall, reminders of a humbler time in Florence.
Speaking of humble, I was hoping at that moment that Uncle Baxter was feeling humbled. It had been a long week of unpleasant revelations about university life for him, although his violent reaction to Martial’s alleged murder was brewing in my mind.
It was nine o’clock on Friday night and myself, Uncle Baxter, John, Norah, Sarah, Larch, Marie, and Christoph were gathered around one of those typical outdoor metal mesh tables you see everywhere doing their best to get comfortable in the matching wrought-iron, metal mesh chairs.
Uncle Baxter sat brooding, a mix of consternation and resignation playing on his face, a full glass of whisky in front of him.
A comfortable quiet settled on us as we sipped our beers. It was the calm at the end of another week, a time to get away from work, students, our various departments and professors for a bit. So naturally, that’s what we talked about.
“Hugo, why do you have to encourage Professor Riggs like that?” said John.
John was tall and stringy with a sharp, intelligent face.
“What, the Myth meeting?”
“Yeah, he goes on just fine on his own.”
I laughed. “I know, but it’s so much fun. Plus it pisses you off.”
It was John’s turn to laugh. “Are you doing Myth again next semester?”
“I guess. It’s a pain and the students are awful but it’s good money.”
“I’m doing it too,” said Norah, resignation mixing with her usual cheery expression.
“Myth and Russian lit?” John said.
“You know they take anyone they can get so they can offer more classes and get more undergrads in. It’s big money for them,” I said.
Larch snorted and shook his head. His advancing baldness made his already high forehead look even higher, in sharp contrast to his long beard. “Money, that’s all anyone can ever talk about. Such nonsense that the university can claim to be not for profit. What a bunch of bs.”
“How are you going to start the revolution this time, Larch?” I said.
Larch took a drink and pulled at his beard. “You just wait. It’s gonna happen. These things take time.”
“Not everything’s about money,” said Marie. “My advisor is making me edit her manuscript as a part of my thesis work.”
“That sounds like it is still about money,” said John.
“Is she paying you?”
“No, but what am I supposed to do? If I want to work on Don Quixote then I have to work with her.”
Larch interjected. “See? This is what I’m talking about. They all want their money but none of it trickles down to us.”
“Larch, your mom’s a heart surgeon and your dad runs the biggest law firm in Chicago,” I said.
I rolled my eyes.
“Mede tis huperphronesas ton paronta daimona allon erastheis olbon ekcheei megan.”
We all looked at Sarah. “What?”
Sarah, dark curls hiding her face, head bent over a book, gave no indication that she had heard our pleas for illumination.
It was then that Uncle Baxter stood up. I noted with some slight alarm that the whisky glass in front of him was empty.
He cleared his throat. “Hugo, I’m leaving. Don’t try to stop me. I have no interest in staying here and becoming yet another whining automaton in the university’s scheme to bleed credulous students dry of their parents’ hard earned money instead of giving them an education, building a useless bureaucracy instead of pursuing truth and knowledge. I was right when I guessed Professor Malvern is a dying breed. I can only hope you’ll have the good sense to get out while you can.”
“I’m not a quitter, Uncle Baxter.” I tried to sound confident.
“I suppose I can respect that.” He turned and left, a slight tilt in his walk.
Sure enough, when I got back to my apartment he was gone. There was a note on the kitchen table. All it said was “Good luck.”
Victory had a slightly sour taste in my mouth, but it was victory nonetheless. I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t be getting any more checks from Uncle Baxter, not after that speech. I felt a little bad that I had seemingly run him out, but he wasn’t wrong about what he’d said. He was right on all counts. He’d had a very different idea of how things worked and all I had done was show it to him. It would have happened sooner or later.
I think he was too used to being his own master and commander in his work where he could cut up red tape and cut out the middle man. Not so at a university. It was a short, sharp lesson but at least he was free.
I thought I might not see him again, not for a long while. As I lay my head down to get my eight solid, I didn’t know how wrong I was.
Soaring Twenties is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.