An aging, cynical professor finds an unexpected mentor in an enigmatic freshman.
|Times of Trial: Lessons, Weapons, & Self-Perpetuating Rhetoric
Carly entered his first "The Facts about Fiction" seminar ten minutes late, praising his good fortune that the door was open and his professor was later than himself. The classroom looked more like a library, mismatched bookcases lining its walls, shades half-drawn, overhead fluorescents one-third lit. The lecture hall was terraced, rising seven steps into shadows, where the ghost of naps past drowsed quiet in a corner.
He was hardly noticed as he found an empty seat in the back. His only hope at first was that he'd somehow wandered into the wrong seminar. The blackboard, easily the largest he'd ever seen, was filled with jerky handwriting:
Ageless it is, this Anger of ours, from a child's first learning of the word No! to its use in frustration against parents who snicker softly behind their hands. With time it tapers into an adolescent angst the brain clings to as its only constant, an insanity both slaked and exacerbated by excess.
Then, over a long but steep decline, it's nothing more than a shaken fist, a waved cane against a world that moved on somewhere between your first love and the loss of your parents. And you realize, impotent, that you stood mired in anger while the years slipped by like so much blood in a vein, heedless to your own innocence.
As life grants its lines, creases, worries, and fatigues in a bundle and flux of missed opportunities, that anger grows and makes friends of regret, and desperation. You may seek younger ears to spare your heartache, and they will look at you with pity on their faces, compliment your clairvoyance, and trudge ignorantly toward their own coming of age.
But they will remember your words, and later, regret them as well, and this will please you quietly. Your children, and theirs, and theirs... captives to the ignorance of youth and the jealousies of age, and to anger young and old. Anger as the world withholds, and anger as it takes away what you never even knew was there.
And you can gather up these things, all of them, and nestle them into that dark secret facet deep within you, and call it Wisdom.
Carly saw several students copying the text into their notebooks. One of them was pecking it into a laptop with the maddeningly self-assured tickety-tickety of a college-level typist. It sounded like...interpretive jazz/tap, for grasshoppers.
He frowned, glancing at the notebook before him, a single felt pen clinging to its coiled-wire spine. The empty pages furled out before him, each line leaping toward a horizon of limitless possibility.
He chewed his left thumb, touching the tip of his pen to the paper.
"The prevalent irony within the directive 'eschew obfuscation'," he began, "bears a contrived, semantic consanguinity, if you will, with the speaker's pernicious, pedantic erudition. I are hear to get smrt, dammit."
He capped the pen and closed the notebook. The typist resumed his improvised chopstick symphony.
The classroom door swung shut, and Carly smiled to see his professor carried nothing but car keys and a comically large cup of gas-station coffee. He sat both on a bare monstrosity of a desk and eased into a chair that creaked in surprise. Professor Knotts put his feet up, studying his students with indifference.
"Good morning," he said. "Apologies for my tardiness; it won't become a trend."
The class gave a smattering of good-mornings. For a moment Knotts picked at something on his tie.
"So!" he said. "I trust as this is a freshman writing seminar, you've absorbed the passage I've left on the board?"
Nods and murmurs of accordance.
"Excellent! My poor arthritic wrist extends his thanks. I trust some of you felt motivated to copy it?"
Nods and murmurs of accordance.
"Wonderful!" he said. He picked up the wastebasket beside his desk. "You may now throw it away."
"Go ahead; you pay me to instruct you. Your first assignment. Come along now."
Making his rounds, the wastebasket was soon filled with crumpled paper. But no laptop, unfortunately.
"You understand, I hope, the simplicity of my position as professor. The word 'profess' has several definitions, my favorite, 'to make a pretense of,' but as to that I'll leave you to be the judge."
He returned to his seat, his feet to the desk, his hands behind his head, and smiled. Or grimaced, it was too ambiguous.
Tickety-tickety. Peck-peck. Slap, tickety-tickety.
"Now, let us ponder this cumbersome passage. Any textbook would... "
"Oh, for Christ's sake, could you muzzle that contraption for ten seconds?"
A round of tentative laughter died a quiet death. Knotts continued.
"Let me be clear what few expectations I have. The first is your attention."
Knotts stood, grabbed a nub of chalk and began scrabbling at the board. He wrote "Uh, tension" in an island of empty space.
"I truly understand the vast and myriad collection of orgasmic distractions pressing heavy upon a fledgling nest of college freshmen such as yourselves, but I go to great lengths to be the sole focus of each little pair of pigeon-esque eyes during class.
"You will find my own personal notes for each session uploaded onto... to the, ah..."
Knotts snapped his fingers, searching the ceiling for an answer.
"For the love of...what is that God-forsaken pun?"
"You mean the iSite?" a student asked. Knotts raised one eureka finger.
"Precisely. I may spend more time typing than I do teaching, but if it allows..."
"I like the WikiSticky better," someone remarked. "More feedback capability."
Knotts raised an eyebrow, cutting the air with a glance before speaking.
"I myself maintain that the university system may never fully recover from the loss of caning as a corrective measure, but as you may notice, I don't proudly wave my opinion like the Stars and Bars in Richmond during the War of Northern..."
Knotts reeled as if slapped. "What a fantastic segue!"
He turned and added "Free-dumb: In-deep-end Dunce" to the blackboard.
"Secondly, I expect each of you to walk out of this class with a better understanding of your own thoughts. You will come to see this room as a haven for independent thinking, and me as the St. Peter to your literary salvation. Inaction, lack of confidence, stale commentary, and sub-protozoan perceptivity are your only sins here."
He replaced the chalk, removed his glasses, and rubbed a prominent yellow smudge along the bridge of his nose.
"Now, with that said, astound me with your unique perspectives."
Several hands rose and he picked one at random. Clearing his throat, the young man with the laptop began to speak.
"It's an obtuse piece, with aspects of Whitman mixed with a cynical tone. I like the various manifestations of anger as they mature with age, especially the..."
Knotts held up his hand, voicing his appreciation. Others shared similar opinions, each receiving indifferent nods when they had finished. Finally, Knotts looked at Carly.
"And you, brooding in the back, your notebook unopened and pen yet uncapped. Share your Olympian thoughts with us lowly mortals...and perhaps your own, just, oh, for a little variety."
Carly smiled, striding out to join Finny on the limb.
"I hate it," he said. Chairs squawked as students turned to stare.
"Such eloquence!" Professor Knotts grinned. "Identify yourself, elaborate!"
"Carleton Brown, and...well, first I should say that it is very deliberately written, and even creative in its own right. But it's the kind of self-perpetuating rhetoric that steers countless students away from reading literature. And writing it, for that matter. Not the best way to start the semester, if I may wave my Stars and Bars."
Knotts wore a twinge of interest. Carly continued, reassured.
"You can consider the style, I guess. Maybe this type of writing was all the rage...uh, whenever...but it beckons with one hand and gives you the finger with the other. I can't gauge the period, but Twain's thoughts on Cooper come to mind. An army ambushing a cow, and so forth."
"How, now," Knotts said, smiling. He rose and began erasing the passage on the board.
"And to answer your unposed question of period, Mr. Brown, this was written in the late sixties, part of an equally long-winded and self-gratifying novel called Times of Trial." He finished and turned back to the class.
"Times of Trial received such praises as 'a ponderous read' and 'the new insomniac's almanac.' Despite abysmal sales, it did however receive several uppity-crusty awards, and was oft-quoted among cynical old college professors like myself."
Almost as an afterthought, with just the subtlest of grins, he added:
"It was also my first, and last, published piece of fiction."
The class uttered a collective groan; Carly laughed aloud.
"See me after class, if you will, Mr. Brown."
Carly smiled, and knew at once he'd found an ally in Professor Knotts. He also spotted Kate Chopin's The Awakening moping upon a shelf at his right, and suddenly Knotts' diarrhea of the typewriter looked just like fresh baked homemade apple pie, cooling on that narrow windowsill of inspired literary genius.
* * * *
They sat in a stately office, a dozen floors above the classroom, drinking coffee. Knotts had rummaged, grumbling, before producing a second mug for his guest.
I'm all outta sick days, the mug explained, so I'm calling in dead.
"Hot tea is the last bastard bastion of archaic academic thought," Knotts said, reaching the mug over a cluttered disaster of a desk. Then he handed Carly a colossal paperback. Its spine was creased and bent, the edges frayed. Carly wasn't surprised by the title.
"My annotated copy," Knotts explained. "It traveled the country on the book tour. It has served as a reminder to bite my tongue...as well as a doorstop, coaster, and a paperweight. I hereby pass that burden – shutting me up – over to you. You seem capable enough."
"It's ah...wow," Carly said, feeling the heft of the paperback. It was roughly the size of The Fountainhead, having recently eaten a large dog or a small socialist.
"963 pages of what? 'Self-perpetuating rhetoric'?"
"No, no, be not ashamed! Forever own your words, Mr. Brown, and hold fast to your opinions. They're all that separate us from the beasts and birds – bugger what the evolutionists say about thumbs."
"Why haven't you published since?" Carly asked.
Knotts folded his hands before him, pursing his lips in consideration.
"I've given it up," he said, as if he'd been speaking of something simple as lemon in his tea...coffee. Sugar. Sugar in his coffee. No tea, Carly reminded himself.
"Why, though? You obviously can...surely there's someone out there still itching for a good ponderous read."
"Or a good night's sleep?" Knotts asked, chuckling into his mug.
"Exactly!" Carly said, face lit up in a grin. "So why not go for another doorstop?"
Knotts looked at him again, this time longer than before. His eyes were tired.
"Because confidence is the artist's currency, Mr. Brown," Knotts said, leaning forward on his elbows. "And the truth is," he continued, offering a lazy shrug, "I'm flat broke. So I teach."
Carly snorted a quick laugh, then he realized Knotts was serious. Up, once more, came the eyebrow.
May I remind those present, said that single raised brow, that for all these books-upon-shelves, files-within-cabinets, papers-upon-desks, dust-upon-blinds, motes-upon-carpet, coffee-within-cups, asses-upon-chairs, and foolish-laughing-feet-within-foolish-teenaged-mouths, that there is but one singular artifact that sanctifies this...Domicile of the Creative Mind – and I assure you, it draws neither breath nor salary.
Carly blinked, twice. Could an eyebrow say all that?
I am your beginning and your end, warned the eyebrow. But I shall show mercy, and allow you to choose the order of their execution.
Wait...what? Say again, devil-brow.
Kneel before my TENURE, the eyebrow cried. T-E...oh, bollocks. I'll see you in hell, freshman.
Their conversation turned more toward the class, and Carly did his damndest to keep his laughing feet away from his too-big teenaged mouth. He was but a spider on a thread, swinging above the Inferno, held aloft but for the mercy of that eyebrow. Knotts could bend steel with that thing. And then belittle it, thrice.
"Every writer," Knotts began, eyebrow at ease, "is essentially at war with the reader, if not just for liquid assets alone. I admire Twain's metaphor for its sarcasm but I have my own variation. The writer's technique is not the army, but the weapon itself. And never expect that your readers are livestock. Most aren't as self-aware, and the ones that are tend to buy magazines. And every reader, of any intellect, is armed with a pocketbook or a wallet – far more dangerous to one's career than any conventional weapon."
Carly sipped his coffee. Knotts continued.
"If the true writer conquers with words, then as far as I've seen there are but two ways of winning the field. The first, as with my annotated doorstop there, is a volley of arrows. While capable of mass slaughter, decimating to the ignorant and unprepared, they are at best predictable, easily avoided should one possess the presence of mind to cast a skyward glance on occasion. Once their arrows are spent, the archers themselves are left defenseless, notoriously prone to scattering into obscurity – like yours truly."
"The second technique," Knotts went on. "Is one I've yet to master - pure and simple swordplay. A true swordsman must unfailingly trust himself, his intuition, his reflexes, his vision, and his blade. The ancient Samurai spent months forging their own blades, tempering and folding a single brick of steel, beating out impurities with brute force until it could cut stone. Even then, the blade must be oiled and sharpened, and a Samurai's sword was never sheathed until it was cleaned. Keep your weapon spotless, lest it become dull and force you to reach for your arrows. Do you see?"
Carly saw. They stood and shook hands over the desk.
"Then go forth, Mr. Brown, and conquer where you can."
Knotts clasped his hands behind his back, moving to gaze out his window, where the damned human race fumbled its way across the courtyard below.
"Professor?" Carly asked. "Which awards did you win, if you don't mind?"
"A couple that don't exist anymore," Knotts said to the glass before him. "A couple you wouldn't recognize, and one that maybe you might."
Knotts turned for a brief moment, just long enough for Carly to see his face etched with appreciation.
"Check the cover," Knotts said. "Closely, this time."
Carly did, rubbing his thumbs across the well-worn surface of Knotts' first and last volley of arrows. No more than a ghost of the golden disc it had once been, nearly forty years prior, it was no real wonder that he'd missed it. Carly held his breath, tracing the shadows of an open text with one thumb, gently running the other over the text around the faded disc.
Winner, the spectral text proclaimed at the bottom. National Book Award.
Carly bit his lip to keep from laughing, fanning the pages again, breathing in the musty aroma of a book that had no doubt circled the globe. Carly looked to his professor, somewhat puzzled.
Knotts was old, but hardly ancient, and won the NBA over forty years ago...
"I was 27," Knotts said, again answering the unposed question. "Don't ask why; everyone hated it. So did you."
Carly stuttered for a moment, then he shook the massive novel for emphasis.
"You take an obtuse...thought...out of a thousand-page novel, likely out of context, and you smother a classroom of emotional infants with ideas of anger and regret...and desperation? You've sunk yourself, right here in the harbor, Knotts..."
Carly studied the cover again, sighing.
"I don't hate it," he said. "I'm sure everything in that passage means the world to somebody, maybe a character, maybe you, I don't know. I just hate interpreting my own language."
"I don't expect you to interpret it," Knotts said.
"No you expect us to hate it," Carly replied, holding Times of Trial. "Show me where that passage is."
"Page 841," Knotts said, unmoving. "Second paragraph down, with blue ink at the margin; find it yourself."'
"I will," Carly said, stuffing the book into his backpack. "Right after I finish page 840. You're not broke, Knotts...you just buried it, probably in a bottle of scotch, and forgot which hole you threw it in."
Carly stopped rummaging and looked up.
"It was gin, back then. Now it's just coffee."
Carly was late for his next class.
"I'll tell you what then," he said. "You show me what you've really got stashed in that 'dark secret facet' - 'cause it sure as shit ain't 'Wisdom' - and I'll find that bottle for you. But you're wrong about one thing."
"And what might that be, Mr. Brown?" Knotts' whole face was covered in a smile.
"All this time you've been playing with your sword, you'd have a fuckin' Nobel by now if you'd learned how to shovel instead."
Knotts was staring at him in disbelief. Carly shrugged.
"What?" he asked. "Would you rather stale commentary and some sub-protozoan perceptivity? 'Cause I got three more professors to brown-nose..."
Knotts held his hands up, patting at the air for silence. Carly stood at the desk and smirked.
"Who else are you taking this semester?" Knotts asked.
Carly told him.
"You'll like Berg for American Lit," Knotts said, scribbling. "And don't worry, I'll shoot some emails around...."
"What should I expect?" Carly asked. "With the lit...more Twain?"
"Some," Knotts said. "In an anthology, though. You're still a Freshman, after all."
"Can't argue with that, I guess...I was hoping for more than 'some' Twain though."
"Helluva writer," Knotts said. "Although, I might suggest you steer clear of the Realists, if you can."
Carly smirked, waiting.
"They gather in packs these days," Knotts said, fumbling with his desk drawer. "They're like...fidgety gophers...rabid geese."
"Honk if you're ornery..." Carly mumbled.
Knotts' hysterical laughter followed him all the way to the elevator.
Total WordCount: 3004