Linda LaCroix thought that twelve years in the service of Bowmouth College’s English Department should count for something. She had done her stint as a general clerk and had risen to be the department’s number one secretary. So why was she being treated by the department’s new chair, Professor Danton McGraw, as if she were fresh out of some second-rate two-year business school? All those little lectures on office management and academic protocol. Didn’t the guy know she was a grad from Bowmouth’s own School of Business—with honors yet? Didn’t he see her bachelor’s degree diploma framed right there on the secretaries’ wall, where he couldn’t miss it when he headed into his office? And this semester she and Arlene Burr, the department’s chief clerk and assistant secretary, had to sign In-and-Out slips whenever they took off on a two-minute trip for coffee or to run something off the copy machine. Hit the cafeteria for lunch. Stop in the halls for two minutes to say hello to some other human.
Now as the late October chills were turning the remaining leaves brown, Linda and Arlene each looked back on her past workstation as something like lost Eden. It had happened with the speed of a falling ax. Last spring and all the years before, the secretary and the clerk had had two adjoining but separate offices, both of which were placed at a safe distance across the corridor from the chairman’s office. But then along came Dr. Danton McGraw, who had caused walls to be moved and partitions eliminated. The end result was that now Linda and Arlene found themselves yoked together like conjoined twins fixed in side-by-side desks in the newly created secretaries’ space outside Dr. McGraw’s office. Here neither could get two paces away from her chair without arousing suspicion from the sharp-eared department chairman. Worse still, neither woman could get away from the other and hunker down in the privacy of her own office space. Take shoes off, sneak a candy bar without sharing it, send a private e-mail to a friend, make a personal phone call. The result was that two good friends and coworkers were beginning to feel an unpleasant tension in their everyday work life.
“Trapped,” said Arlene to Linda on the Monday of Halloween week. “That’s what we are. Say I want to step out of this cage to maybe get a breath of air or go pee. I’ve practically got to leave fingerprints and bring back a urine sample.”
But Linda was otherwise focused. She looked around, sniffed the air, and wrinkled her nose. “I don’t know about you,” she said, “but this place is really starting to stink, and it’s not just grungy students coming in and hanging around. Something smells real funny, like there’s a fungus growing somewhere. In a file drawer maybe.”
Linda was a striking woman with a strong opinion on all things. Tall, thin as a wire coat hanger, with a mane of white-blond hair caught into a crown on her head, she had a sharp little chin and narrow blue eyes. And with her whole face bravely covered in a heavy duty makeup and eye enhancements, Linda could have passed for anywhere from thirty-seven to forty-seven. Actually, she was closing in on fifty, a fact she kept quiet about. Her choice for clothing ran to clinging shirts and sweaters—all about a size 3—that still allowed her breasts full presentation rights together with constricted breathing. Then there was the snug skirt, the high-fashion boots and long purple fingernails. Altogether, Linda, known to some of the faculty clowns as “Linda Lovely,” was a female who resembled one of those handsome slender but lethal insects that stand on two legs and eat family members. Most of the English Department regulars, faculty and adjuncts, did well to stay on the right side of Linda.
The yin to Linda’s yang, Arlene was a perfect contrast. She was a comfortably built woman with a cheerful round face, an almost comically turned-up nose, and dark brown hair pulled back with two clips. While Linda dealt with the public with the verbal equivalent of a scalpel, Arlene soothed, comforted, and counseled patience. However, until the beginning of the new semester, Arlene had pretty much taken the faculty ego clashes, the complaints of unhappy English majors, the pleas of adjuncts and teaching fellows as they came. But with the arrival of Dr. McGraw and the new secretary-clerk double-desk setup, her nervous system seemed to have developed a greater sensitivity and her natural buoyancy showed signs of leakage.
Now Arlene herself took a long sniff. Well, Linda was certainly right about the smell.
“I mean,” went on Linda, “maybe it’s the new carpet they laid before we moved over here, but I wouldn’t put it past someone to poison us. A little bit. And even if no one is doing that, some new carpet dyes have fumes that make you really sick. But this smell seems to be coming right from under your desk.”
Arlene grimaced. “I don’t think it’s the carpet. But you know, I’ll bet it’s that mouse. I’d forgotten the mouse.”
“Mouse?” said Linda, lifting her feet up and peering at the floor.
“Found him two days ago with that batch of blue exam books left over from the spring semester,” said Arlene. “On top of those shelves.” She waved at a line of shelves packed with catalogues, directories, student handbooks, and reams of printer paper. “I felt kinda bad. You know, like he reminded me of Stuart Little. But all dried up and skinny. He must have starved to death.”
“What,” demanded Linda, “did you do with this mouse?”
Arlene grinned. “I wanted to slip him into McGraw’s desk drawer but lost my nerve. I need this job. Besides, the mouse might have carried that virus, what’s its name?”
“Hanta virus. Spread by rodents,” said Linda. “So where is the mouse now?”
Arlene shrugged. “I think someone distracted me just after I’d found him, so he may be right there in one of the wastebaskets. Like my wastebasket.”
“Oh, ugh,” said Linda.
“Ugh,” agreed Arlene.
“Okay, okay,” said Linda. “I’ll call Maintenance and they can set some traps or whatever they do about mice. And, for once,” she added firmly, “I agree with McGraw. With everything else going on, we don’t need mice.” She nodded in the direction of a door with a window and the legend Chairman (gold on a black plaque) fixed below the glass.
“Please, no traps,” said Arlene, apparently still affected by the idea of Stuart Little. “I mean not real ones. I have a little Havahart trap thing for mice. I can bring it in. And it’s no wonder this one starved. Before McGraw turned up there used to be plenty of snacks for mice. I used to keep pretzels in my drawer, and the students were always leaving foodstuff around, and of course we were allowed to have our lunch in here. I even had that one mouse, you remember, the one I called Rosie. Last winter.”
“I don’t remember Rosie,” said Linda. “We each had our own office space then, remember. But, whatever you do, don’t encourage mice. McGraw is absolutely right about bringing in food. If mice really start moving in, he’ll probably start having a major housekeeping inspection. He’ll be going around with white gloves and a microscope. Like the army.”
“He was in the navy,” Arlene reminded her.
“Whichever,” said Linda. “But listen to this. Yesterday he just found out that old Professor Morgan keeps a hot plate in his office closet—you know how far away that guy’s office is, way down by the back stairs, so he must have missed it. Well, there was Morgan with a teakettle going and he’d had Chinese brought in. All those little white cardboard boxes. Talk about a fire hazard. And mouse heaven. That office is ripe, really ripe.”
“The poor old guy,” said Arlene. “He’s been here since World War Two. Or Korea. You can’t change him; you can’t inspect his office. You can’t even get in the place without a shovel. And he’s emeritus. Me, I think he’s kind of a cute old geezer. And he’s pretty smart. But he’ll probably be given the boot by the end of this semester.”
“Wrong. Professor Morgan was asked back again because we lost that new nineteenth-century guy last spring to NYU. Anyway, he’s been given those grad seminars on Wordsworth and Keats and Byron, and he’s scheduled to go through the spring semester. I’ve had to print up a whole new guide and syllabus for his students.”
“Forget about mice. McGraw has Vera Pruczak on his mind,” Arlene pointed out.
“And who’s to blame him there?” said Linda. “I mean, talk about a disaster. That Todd Mancuso assaulted right on the stage. In the middle of a scene. His ear practically cut off, plus almost having a fractured skull.”
“Yeah,” said Arlene. “It was that Terri Colman and Kay Biddle who did the job. I heard from a friend who saw the rehearsal that there was blood spattered everywhere. But you know theatre people. They do things like that.”
“For the record,” said Linda, “A lot of these gals change their names. Some have lousy ones and want something jazzy that looks good up in lights. That Louisa Scotini made me cross out her first name and use ‘Weeza.’ I end up making corrections whenever I send in the grades to the dean’s office. As for that Todd Mancuso, honestly.”
“What I’ve heard,” said Arlene, “is that Todd Mancuso is too much of a smart-ass for his own good. Thinks females are just drooling for his attentions.”
“So good for Terri and Kay, beating him up like that,” said Arlene. “And you know they’re both pets of Vera’s. Anyway, the Drama School is in hot water. I heard McGraw going on about uncontrolled violence and no discipline. And the students are joining sides. The Drama School majors think our students doing a minor in drama are sort of half-baked. Not serious.”
“Drama School kids call them mongrels.”
“An insult to dogs,” said Arlene, the animal lover. “Mongrels are the best kind. Better than some of our students any day.”
“What I’m trying to say,” said Linda, “is that if McGraw’s on a housekeeping binge, Vera might just get the shaft.”
“Or at least be ousted from her number two office in the English Department.”
“That office,” said Linda. “Another god-awful mess. It needs McGraw. Plays and scripts up to her boobs, a recliner, and all those masks and skulls and voodoo dolls.”
“Plus that little refrigerator,” said Arlene.
“And alcohol stashed in her desk. Brandy and vodka. The maintenance people told me all about it. Little parties after evening rehearsals. But she can’t get away with it forever. McGraw will grind her into chopped liver before she knows what hit her. Of course, she’s got that other office over in the Drama School building and people ask why one faculty member needs two offices.”
“Shhh. Can it,” said Arlene, bending over her computer screen. “I think that’s him in the hall.”
Professor Danton McGraw—Dan to those faculty associates still speaking to him—had arrived in late summer to take over the English Department at Bowmouth College. He was a tall, angular man with brown hair cut to military shortness, had large hands and pointed ears, and brought to his office a sharp eye, a sharper tongue. Further, he showed a poorly concealed contempt for the previous recent chair, an unfortunate vacillator and fusspot called Ellis Humber. Professor Humber had been ousted by a series of flanking maneuvers and moved into the woodwork: a seat on a number of unpopular committees and several drab evening teaching assignments all designed to keep him out of Danton McGraw’s hair.
Now in the normal course of things, the chair of many academic departments at Bowmouth College was taken in turn: a year or two, at the most three, and then turned over to the next victim. Victim because despite a certain prestige attached to the job and the glint it gave to a résumé, the position was generally regarded as a pain in the neck. Too much paperwork. Too many committee meetings. Too much time spent soothing tempers, dealing with ruffled feelings, complaints about teaching assignments, soothing prima donna visiting writers, poets, and dramatists. In short, most chairs gave up the job with a huge sigh of relief.
Not Professor Danton McGraw. Being the chair of the English Department was for him a goal reached. And not about to be surrendered because of some foolish tradition of letting some other faculty member rotate into that office.
Danton McGraw, an Annapolis graduate, had done a fifteen-year stint in the navy, mostly under the water in an atomic submarine—a fact that department wags claimed had compressed his judgment—and spoke and acted as if he had a deck under his feet or, more accurately, a periscope over his head. Even after leaving the navy and going the academic route: Ph.D. in English, full rank as professor with tenure, he was given to naval terminology and spoke of making the English Department “shipshape” (an impossible task by any definition). However, submarine veteran that he was, by the beginning of the fall term he had cleaned the department with the academic equivalent of a new broom. A broom made with long sharp metal spokes and designed to not only achieve a “clean sweep” but also plow under anything that threatened to hinder the cleaning operation.
Outspoken junior faculty members disappeared into distant offices. Authors (unless of the Pulitzer variety) running loose writers’ workshops were eyed with suspicion and required to submit outlines of their courses—this anathema to any self-respecting writer. Prima donna professors on esoteric subjects, such as the lesser novels of lesser novelists, translations from the Sanskrit, the diaries of early American Baptists, were rescheduled to teach popular mainstream courses—“popular” meaning mandatory high-enrollment, ergo profitable, classes.
The natural result of the “shipshape” approach to academic management was that secretaries, clerks, and those of such lesser ranks as teaching fellows, lecturers, and other adjuncts became adept at keeping their shoulders hunched, their voices low, and in an effort to become invisible took to gliding along the walls corridors of the English Department’s Malcolm Adam Hall. But these “lowlifes” were relatively fortunate. Unlike the senior faculty and those professors on tenure track, they were housed in a distant sector of the building. As for the “Poets in Residence”—always a temperamental bunch—they had been safely stashed in the West Quad. Thus possibly troublesome members of the English faculty only had to appear in the central Malcolm Adam Hall for committee and faculty powwow, or to have copies of assignments and exams run off. Then back to their lairs out of sight, out of touch.
But Danton McGraw had developed another and more questionable aspect to his persona. He had theatrical aspirations. Loved to take part in stage productions of all kinds. Had shone in small parts in small-town theatres in and around the state and had had walk-on roles in the seasonal Portland Stage productions. Lately, however, his dramatic efforts had been showcased closer to home in midcoast Maine’s little-theatre efforts and library readings. And he wasn’t that bad, as even his enemies would admit. Naval training stood him in good stead; his gestures were sharp and definite, his bearing upright. No, he couldn’t, nor did he want to, play the beggar, the cripple, the sot, but as the straight player he could pull a scene together. He had that great dramatic virtue: a loud, clear voice, so that audience members well beyond the first few rows could hear every spoken line. Added to these talents was the fact that Danton McGraw was a fencer of note. Foil, épée, and saber. Particularly the épée. Ten years ago he had won a state championship in the épée. And only last year in a Camden theatre production he had starred as Laertes in a particularly dazzling duel with a local Hamlet.
The result of this aspect of Dr. McGraw’s résumé was that he had added an undergraduate course in dramatic literature and a graduate Shakespeare seminar to his workload. Further, he had mentioned teaching a beginning course on aspects of directing come the winter semester. Plus, in his desk he had an agreement, already in motion, that allowed him to supervise the swordplay choreography for the Drama School’s new production of Romiette and Julio. After all, Dr. McGraw would point out, although she was undoubtedly a multitalented drama instructor, Vera Pruczak had certainly never shown any aptitude for fencing.
In short, from many points of view, colleagues, clerks, students, and would-be thespians, Professor McGraw was trouble. An ill wind that blew no good. A wind that was set to blow down the fine unwieldy system whereby Associate Professor Vera Pruczak held sway as chief in the Drama School but at the same time had long occupied a second office in the Malcolm Adam building. This latter office sat some five doors away from the department chair’s office and gave her a base for teaching and meeting students taking her academic drama courses. So not only did the woman take up space in two offices, as Dr. McGraw had pointed out with ill-concealed irritation at a restricted committee meeting, but she also seemed to run a one-woman dictatorship at the Drama School. She hovered over rehearsals, contradicted guest directors, and rode herd on student stage designers. Worse yet, Vera’s choice of last season’s productions had resulted in that school losing hunks of money on a two-week Ionesco festival that had really turned off a number of the community of playgoing regulars.
“The college is supposed to be making some money on those. Or not losing it, anyway. Think about goodwill. We’re part of the Maine midcoast area. We don’t need to alienate the entire countryside,” McGraw had told Vera.
Here Vera had smiled her Delphic smile. “We are bringing contemporary drama to areas that might not have an opportunity of seeing it. Not everyone can drive to Boston or New York. Or even to Portland and Augusta.”
“But Vera,” said McGraw, trying for patience. “People began leaving halfway through that Ionesco one, The Bald Soprano. One parent of a senior—he’s a trustee—stopped me on campus complaining that the thing was written for babies. Or for the insane. And three church members wrote about the language used in that Stoppard play last spring. And then there’s that anti-American bullshit. Please keep politics out. It’ll be frontal nudity next, I suppose. Listen, for God’s sake give the audience something pleasing. Or serious. Something classic. Old favorites. Julius Caesar, Pygmalion, Our Town, Arsenic and Old Lace. A Raisin in the Sun is okay. So is The Glass Menagerie. Death of a Salesman. And a musical or two, and I don’t mean Chicago. We’re talking farmers and merchants and fishermen and veterans. Parents of active-duty servicemen. Mothers, first-grade teachers, and checkout ladies. They all want to feel comfortable going to a play. Not to put up with academic artsy types and student oddballs spouting a lot of what the audience thinks is a lot of shit.”
Vera had quietly informed Dr. McGraw that he was not yet head of the Drama School, thank you very much, and departed.
Which remark fertilized a very sharp seed already planted in the fertile brain of Professor McGraw.
Copyright © 2007 by J. S. Borthwick. All rights reserved.