|Apr/May 2007 Fiction|
Rhinoceros bearing down on him like armored vehicle on supply road of war-ravaged country brings coffee-puke throatward as he thinks, sensibly, But this is the Field House, swivels toward exit, catches a smaller blur, nubile, saurian, at his heels, a scampering and recoiling, a whimper and crack stuffsacked into one sound that registers as Baby, only then spots the leash lost against mini-rhino neck like a shadow against a shadow, then realizes as behemoth mere yards away, Okay then, Mother, too.
At 10:50 a.m., just twenty minutes prior, Professor Charlie Gibbs had left Jenness Hall in a huff after class. He'd collected their papers and wouldn't have time to drop them off at his office before the meeting with Dean Falcone. Sandra Rasinksy ("Raisinette" to her field hockey teammates) had, predictably, handed in nothing, gibbering about printer problems sans even the bone-fling of eye contact. He, coffee roiling in the gut and apprehensive RE: Meeting with Dean Falcone, the new and already infamous Dean Falcone, had shrugged it off for once, then regretted it as he exited Jenness. He'd passed through the plume of smoke that marked passage into the academic quad. English majors—The Little Nicoteurs, he called them. Though ironic in this as in all of his thoughts, he thought smoking brave because of the way it embraced contradiction: sex/death, stimulant/relaxant, menthol cool / cyanide heat.
He broke onto the path behind the library at 10:56, the air bulging with autumnal fruit-rot. The path led down to the bridge that would take him to the building where the bureaucratic cabal nominally in charge spent their days. His whole class, his whole profession, his very etre, was devoted to subverting said authorities while retaining their shrub-like imprimatur on his paycheck. So the ephedrinous pace of his heart, that he was wishing he'd bummed a cigarette from a Nicoteur, felt both hypocritical and hyperconventional.
On a 2-3 schedule, his course load consisted of English 792.01, "Eye Spy: The Panoptic Gaze and/in Popular Fiction" and English 880.01, "No Exit Stage Left: Absurdity and Its Discontents." It was the latter in which Sandra Rasinsky had pulled her shenanigans. He found it extremely difficult to enforce deadlines in that class, since the focus of virtually every reading and discussion was the constructed nature of reality and the ultimate meaninglessness of life and the universe. But still, please hand in those papers on time; they're 70% of your grade.
As he approached the bridge, he found himself following too closely a couple of undergrad women trading conspiratorial laughs. Abruptly he was reminded that he had not slept with a single student in either class this semester, nor, at this rate, would he. He speculated—was it the particular mix of women, apparently more intent on studying than flirting, prone to come to class in sweats, t-shirts, and scrunchies, unmade-up and bespectacled? Was it the circumstances, the array of committees in which he'd gotten enmeshed? His daughter's relentless soccer season, the countless away games? Or—here terror's fangs sank deep—was it, somehow, him, Gibbs? He could feel hairline outlined by autumnal air and gravity's tug on his shoulder-strap, gravity to which his flesh would gradually succumb.
Maybe he'd succumb to Sara Rasinsky, too. He pictured her in her field hockey uniform, pantyless. Ruminating, he didn't see the three turtles, stolid bouillon cubes, in the still water. Nor did it cross his mind at 10:58 that the Field House was an exceedingly odd place for the Dean to schedule a meeting, the memo's explanation about a prior engagement with the Athletic Director notwithstanding.
Teddy Falcone: identifies as Buddhist, meaning: grew up comfortable, in luxury. Sheltered. Not royalty. Academia. Father an economist, mother a phenomenologist. Both tenured from his earliest memory. "Tenure": word learned at age three. Father: quasi-Marxist. Best known for: Altitudinous Stagnation Theory. Summary: growth and development demand sudden, precipitous ascents, resulting in economic "altitude sickness," with consequent inability to predict susceptibility of a given entity (individual/corporation/national economy) until it actually occurs. Caveat: deathly afraid of heights, his life having been spent at or beneath sea level. Mother's focus: Merleau-Ponty, Blinking and Knowledge. Summary: blinking is intrinsic to visual-epistemic experience. Consequences: obsessively avoids blinking. Psychological distress. Personal devastation. Housebound. Teddy: convinced that parents, and by extension all academics, live(d) in maya, illusory world. Prescription: rise to deanship, enforce reality like a law, a vigilante code.
Start with respect for the literal. Proclaim Marxist tendencies? Live on a commune for six months, then. Lift some straw bales, plant some cauliflower and beets. Adherent of "publish or perish?" Try writing with a gun to your head. Better yet, hold the nozzle of a Walther P99-Series semiautomatic to the heads of the members of your department. See how it feels. Joke with colleagues that you can just "waltz" into a class you've taught for years without any preparation? Learn your ass how to do a serviceable dance, damnit. Figure out how to pivot, how to dip your partner, all in 3|4 time. Learn the American-style, the International, the Mazurka, too, while you're at it. That too much to ask? Immunity for scientists? Nope. Cessation of studies, a moratorium on their hypotheses and their data-accumulation and unremitting analysis. Simply look, touch, marvel for six months. Six months: the magic bullet figure, time he estimated it took to contract a chronic, permanent case of reality.
On the mezzanine of the Field House, Falcone rubs his hands like a fly. He's outdone himself this time. His watch reads 10:56. Any minute now, this Charles Gibbs, Comparative Literature Professor of Pompous Repute will enter. Gibbs has just been teaching a play called Rhinoceros by Ionesco, about a bunch of citizens spontaneously metamorphosing into rhinos. Morphing, as the students put it. Gibbs tells his students they walk amidst rhinos all the time. Asking students what their personal rhinos are. Whether they would even notice if they transformed into rhinos, if their friends turned into rhinos, if it wasn't happening already. Falcone looks one more time for the signalman perched like a sniper in the rafters. He can't wait to see Gibbs's face.
What Charles Gibbs knows about rhinos:
1) They are big.
2) They like mud.
3) They're endangered.
4) They often carry a bird on their backs, like the little plastic toy his daughter had when she was very young.
5) They serve as a sublimely convenient metaphor for the inherent chaos, meaninglessness, and latent violence of the universe.
What Charles Gibbs does not know about rhinos:
Though big, they are generally docile, and when they charge it is often a bluff, that they will pull back whenever they can, that they are extremely clean, finicky even, that they defecate collectively in a single, confined spot, that they are a mixed lot, some placid, some easily agitated, some more attention-seeking, and some more isolative—not unlike his students.
That they slather themselves in mud not out of mud-love, but to stay cool and to ward off mosquitoes.
He doesn't know that once rhinos wandered all over this continent, that once they must have looked like buffalo freckling the plains.
He doesn't know that calves are playful, frolicsome as puppies, curious and exploratory, that they crave human affection when in captivity. He doesn't know Ceratotherium simum, the white ones, huddle together back-to-back as they sleep.
He doesn't know yet that while their skin can be tough in places, especially around the folds, in others—the lip that reaches like a finger, the spot behind the ears—it is velvety. He doesn't know yet, though he will, that to radiate internal heat, their blood vessels and nerves stretch almost to the surface. That these connect to tiny muscles which can send shivers rippling across their sensitive skin. One day, cradling (if you can call it that) the mother, she faltering from an acute lymphoblastma, he will learn the peculiar intimacy such shivers can convey to the human hand.
He does not know yet that a nearly-invisible steel net separates him from this mother rhino, that when she tumbles into it and bounces back with a grunt, it will save his life and probably hers. That it will not be enough to save the life of Teddy Falcone, who, in orchestrating the shipment of a mother and baby rhino to the university, has inadvertently crossed paths with some of Mozambique's most cutthroat poachers, men whose contacts will make sure to slice off his nose when they slaughter him, as if he has a horn that, like the rhino's, is worth more per ounce than gold.
Gibbs doesn't know yet that, bequeathed this rhinoceros mother and daughter by fate, by the most unfavorable and unfathomable of circumstances, he will raise them with his daughter like the pony she always wanted, the one they could never afford. That this will bring them moments of joy, joy untethered to time and to his nagging sense that he is a failure as a father.
He cannot possibly know now, as this rhino hurtles, blind and snarling, that one day he'll brace his cheek against her full-grown daughter's cold, leathery one, murmur, "Oh, Tina," to her, nor that in the moment their faces burst apart like ballroom dancers, he will catch himself reflected in her eye, and that this will be the only image he will ever think of as truly his own.