by Damon Nomad
Publish or perish! What might a meek literature professor do to ensure he gets tenure?
| Tenure of Terror|
By Damon Nomad
Reginald stood behind the podium, as he wrapped up the lecture on Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe. "What did you think of the use of sensory perception?" Reginald's eyes were wild with excitement, "The sights and sounds, the pounding beat of the heart!" He waved with a grand gesture at the class, "It is brilliant, just brilliant." He chuckled, muttering quietly as he walked back to the desk, "Dismembered body under the floorboard." He glanced up at the clock, "That is all we have time for today, next week we will start on something modern. I will email a link to a copy this weekend."
A girl in the front row nearly ran from the room, professor Reginald Poindexter gave her the creeps. She regretted signing up for the course, Literary Survey of the Macabre. Her boyfriend had taken it last semester, he said it was an easy A or B for a 200-level literature elective. You just needed to write an end-of-semester research paper, if you based it on one of Poindexter's crummy books, it was a guaranteed A or B. Just that and show up for class, he liked having an audience for his ramblings about morbid tales, he took attendance for his lectures.
Reginald was eating dinner alone this evening, he would go up and talk to Florence in a bit. He sighed with a shrug, he was still angry but he would spend some time with her before he got to work in the study. The old house was a bit drafty and it was chilly this evening, an old Victorian home only three streets over from campus. He had promised Florence it would have all modern upgrades when they bought it. That was nearly twelve years ago now, and none of the renovations had ever been taken care of, but he didn't mind. He liked the old classic look and the dim lighting, which made for a cozy atmosphere. He spent most of his time in his study, his sanctuary in the front of the home just off of the foyer. The large dark stained bookshelves and an antique desk, fit the house so well, the only modern touches were his computer and the gas fireplace, which kept the room reasonably comfortable. One shelf on the bookcase was dedicated to his published novels, seven novels.
He headed up the stairs and quietly sat in the old wing-back chair in the corner of the bedroom next to Florence's side of the bed, "I need to work in the study late, finish updating my CV for the Tenure Committee." He exhaled quietly, "This is the year, I have put in my time, teach one of the most popular classes, and I have seven published novels." He paused, his hands gripping the arms of the chair, "Seven novels, I have earned my spot. Last year they gave tenure to Eleanor Curtis, she only has five published books, only five. I checked."
He doesn't much care for professor Eleanor Curtis, he thought he spotted her looking down her nose at him a few times, elitist attitude no doubt. All the rage with students and faculty, especially with some of the male professors. He heard some students talk about how much she looked like some famous actress, Reginald didn't pay attention to celebrities. But he had eyes, she was shapely with thick wavy blond hair. He wondered if that helped get her the quick route to tenure, looks, and popularity. She had only been at the university for three years coming from a large Ivy League school, her husband was transferred as a managing partner of a law firm in town. He shook his head in disgust, tenure after only three years at the university. He waved toward the bed, "Her writing is so fussy, claims they are expos on the nature of life and the struggle of humanity, it's boring stuff." He stood up, Florence was not interested in the politics of the tenure committee. He shuffled quietly out of the room and down the stairs towards his study.
Eleanor Curtis joined the group of six other full professors, in the conference room for the head of the department of literature, Archibald Lester. She was the newest member of the tenure committee, invited to join a few months back after a professor retired to Emeritus status. The small liberal arts university has a good reputation for the department of literature, she was not quite forty the other six were all in their sixties, and Lester was just ready to turn seventy. This was the first time they had met since she was appointed, they were all decent people, but she did not know them well. Lester was a bit old-fashioned, he wrote poetry. Some of it had been quite popular and highly acclaimed in academic circles, but that was decades ago.
Lester gestured to a seat as Eleanor walked into the room, "Professor Curtis good to have you with us, have a seat, we can get started a little bit early." He swept a hand waving towards the rest of the group, "You all know professor Curtis. She has been with the university for a few years now, two of her books were national literary prize winners, she will bring a younger point of view to our committee."
Archibald had a small stack of papers beside him, he tapped on the pile. "We have one pending case this year, associate professor Poindexter. He has reached the years of service for tenure." Lester sighed with a wince, "In fact, he was at the years of service last year, but we never took the case up. This year we have to make a decision, the dean is pressing the matter." He was guessing that Poindexter complained that it was not considered last year.
Eleanor didn't know much about Poindexter, seemed to be a bit odd, an elfish man with albino-like features, he wore clothes from the last century. She had tried to introduce herself when she first arrived, at a faculty meeting, but he scurried away like a mouse. She had never read any of his books, she had picked one up once in the library, some horrible, twisted story about a serial killer, chopping up bodies. After scanning the promotional description on the back cover, she decided not to read it.
Archibald handed out copies of the updated CV, "He delivered his updated CV last week, highlights are seven published novels and something over twenty short stories. He also notes his two hundred level course, Literary Survey of the Macabre as one of the most popular courses on campus." He sighed, "Remember these discussions are confidential, it is a simple vote. The majority of four decides the matter."
Eleanor slowly scanned the CV, "We aren't going to decide this afternoon, surely not?"
Archibald shook his head, "No, no. We usually meet four or five times for each case once we take it under consideration, once a week on Friday like this at the end of the day. You all have his CV now, the factors for consideration are contributions to teaching, scholarship of writing, and research work, but he has not done any research since his doctoral thesis. That should not be a disqualification, many tenured professors in our department have not done research. You should review some of his written works. We can start the discussion next week."
Eleanor looked up at the sound of professor Geraldine Taft rapping her small fist on the table, "I am not reading his disgusting trash! Hair down to his shoulders, with those round spectacles, creeping about the corridors like a rat, muttering to himself. An odd little man, with strange views of what constitutes literature."
Archibald gestured for calm, "Geraldine, you know we have a code of conduct here, you might not like his genre. You need to keep an open mind and we are not going to consider comments about personality or appearance."
Geraldine shook her head, "Disgusting rubbish, look at these publishers. None of the big publishers, it's junk. I read part of one years ago after he was made an associate professor, I was appalled, the writing is not academic quality. Does not even qualify as literary fiction it's just pulp junk. It was horrifying with graphic violence and gore. I am ready to vote now!"
Archibald tapped a fist lightly on the table, "No, we are not going to vote the day we take a case under advisement." He understood Geraldine's opinion, he had read half of one of the books years ago as well, it was pretty much as Geraldine said, salacious pulp fiction. Archibald had also read Poindexter's first book, based on Reginald's doctoral thesis. It was quite good but was never published, he probably could not find a publisher. It was a probing analysis of the works of Edgar Alan Poe, and that book secured his promotion from Assistant to Associate professor. Ever since then he wrote these sensational morbid tales of murder and mayhem, a route he must have chosen so he could be published. Archibald did not think Poindexter deserved tenure, but he knew it would be a real slap in the face and Poindexter had already suffered some embarrassment years earlier. But that was a personal matter.
Archibald fixed his gaze on Geraldine, she relented with a shrug, "Fine I will vote against him next week."
Eleanor sat at home that evening, her husband was out of town on business. She opened a bottle of wine in the kitchen as she started dinner. A boiling pot of water for pasta and a small pan with tomato sauce, garlic, and onion. She sat at the kitchen table sipping her wine as she scanned the CV, she had to read one book to make a fair judgment about Poindexter. Everyone deserved fair consideration, this was a significant decision affecting this man's professional reputation. She scanned down the list of novels, with short descriptions. Death for Betrayal from three years ago didn't seem too bad, a man who poisons his wife as revenge for some kind of betrayal.
She spent the weekend reading an eBook version on the university server. The first half of the book was quite good, for commercial genre fiction. But it was like Geraldine said, it had no academic flair, it would not be considered literary fiction expected from professors of literature. The second half was difficult to read, she knew some people liked these graphic frightening details. She found the description of the slow painful effects of poisoning morbid and disturbing. From her point of view, the book started to go off the rails and was even more ghastly. The eventual death, dismembering of the body, and the disposal with acid. The killer's psychological delight in watching her die and dissolving her existence was disturbing, all told in extraordinary detail. From a literary perspective, the violence was not proportional to the supposed betrayal. The killer was a professor of art and a painter. He overheard his wife telling a good friend, that she thought his paintings were trash, that is the betrayal that yielded a death sentence. Eleanor did not find it plausible, for the psychopathy of the killer. The character was not portrayed as a madman or psychotic. More of a loner and misfit, almost a sympathetic figure.
The next Thursday Eleanor was in the student union, eating lunch in the downstairs cafeteria. She was shocked as she looked up and saw who had stopped to talk to her, "How is your soup, professor Curtis?" It was Reginald Poindexter, she was petrified he was going to ask to sit with her, everyone in the department knew she was on the tenure committee.
She felt awkward, "It's quite good actually." She prayed he did not mention the tenure committee or ask to sit with her.
He squinted with an odd frown, "My wife loves soup." He looked at her bowl, "Cream of mushroom, just like that is her favorite." He waved a hand, "Have a good day on Friday and a good weekend." He turned and scurried away. She was troubled by the mention of Friday, he would know that was when the committee met and it was the first time he had ever spoken a word to her, it was peculiar.
The next day Eleanor arrived for the tenure committee meeting, she was not the last to arrive this week, it was Geraldine Taft who came in last. Eleanor thought the older woman looked a bit distracted or worried, as she sat down. Furrowed eyebrows, and lips tight in a frown. She did not look up, she seemed to be staring blankly at the wall.
Archibald Lester called the meeting to order, "This is a very open process, this is only our first meeting after taking associate professor Poindexter into consideration. Ordinarily the first two meetings, we just have some open discussion about some of the written works we have read and any other points, without any vote. The standard has been that any member can state their support of tenure at any time in the process, that way it will become clear if someone has a majority of support without the need for a series of painful votes."
Eleanor listened to two of the other professors talk about the works they had read, the assessment was about the same as hers. They answered questions from the others about the novels. The consensus on his novels seemed to be that they were competently written, and relatively popular in a sub-genre that likes graphic tales of death and killing but not what would be considered literary fiction. Professor Lester reviewed some of the student feedback on Poindexter, some seemed to enjoy his dark ways others seemed to be unsettled by his grisly tales.
As the newest member Eleanor decided she would hold back in this first meeting. She thought Lester Archibald also held back a bit, she suspected it was because he was the chairman. She was most surprised by Geraldine Taft, she had not said a word. Lester gestured to the clock, "We have been here for almost two hours now, I suggest we wrap up unless someone has something to add."
Geraldine Taft leaned forward gesturing to Archibald, "Please reflect in the minutes my support for tenure for Reginald Poindexter." She stared at Archibald, "Put it in the minutes Lester! Support for tenure by one member of the committee, G. Taft." She got up and hurriedly left the room. The other six sat in stunned silence for a few moments. Archibald broke the silence as he stood up, "See everyone next week."
Eleanor saw Archibald Lester on the sidewalk as she was leaving the building. He waved to her to come closer. "You get a chance to start reading some of Poindexter's work?" They walked along the sidewalk together.
She nodded, "Yes, I did, I should be ready to contribute next week. I had a bit of a strange encounter with him at lunch yesterday."
Archibald sighed, "He didn't pressure you on the tenure vote did he?"
Eleanor shrugged shaking her head, "Not really, he did wish me a good day for today. Then asked me how my soup was, said it is his wife's favorite."
Lester chuckled, "Really, surprised he would remember what her favorite soup is."
"What do you mean?"
"She disappeared about five or six years ago, the rumor was she just up and left him. He has never said anything about it."
Eleanor felt uneasy, "Really, the way he talked I thought they were still together."
Once Eleanor got home, she poured a glass of wine as she sat at the large counter in the kitchen. She felt unsettled about the encounter with Poindexter yesterday. She got her laptop out of the case and put it on the counter, she searched the internet to see what she might find out about his wife. She had never heard the story about his wife's disappearance, it would have been a few years before she came to the university. She found a faculty announcement when he was named assistant professor years earlier, it mentioned that his wife Florence was a freelance editor.
Eleanor froze, Florence was the name of the victim in Poindexter's book, the woman who had been poisoned and dissolved in acid by her husband. The character Florence also was a freelance editor. She felt a chill run down her back, was the name choice an act of revenge for his wife leaving him or was the book about what he had done to her? Art imitating reality or reality imitating art? She chuckled quietly, she was letting her imagination get the better of her. The man seemed peculiar. But dangerous?
Her mobile on the countertop was vibrating she saw it was Robert, she answered. "Ellie, I am going to be late, I was in a car accident on the old county road."
She gasped, "Are you okay, was anyone hurt?"
"I am fine, nobody else involved my car went off the road, brakes weren't working when I came to a sharp turn. Wrecker is on the way and the police are here, they said they would give me a ride home after they get everything written down. Don't worry."
She laid the phone back down on the countertop and was startled to hear a voice behind her, "Robert have a bit of car trouble?" She spun around in her seat, Poindexter was standing in the doorway of the kitchen. His menacing stare cut through her, he didn't look peculiar, he looked frightening.
He shrugged, "Maybe some air in the brake lines." He sneered stepping one step closer, "Nothing serious, at least this time."
His eyes narrowed and his mouth tightened into an angry frown. "I am guessing Taft got the message, she supported me this week in the tenure meeting, right? You will do the same next week, or Robert will not live to regret it."
Weeks later Reginald sat in the wing-back chair in the bedroom, next to Florence's side of the bed. He stared at the framed picture of her, on the nightstand beside the bed. "I got word today, that I have received full tenure. Turns out my books aren't trash." He shrugged, "Too bad you can't take it back." He picked up the picture and carried it downstairs to the study, took it out of the frame, and tossed the picture into the fireplace.