UFR Presents: “Notes from a Burning Underground: Part II” by Jonathan Callahan

Part I of Jonathan Callahan’s Notes from a Burning Underground can be found in Keyhole 11. He is actively seeking a publisher for both Part III as an excerpt, and, in book form, the novella as a whole. Contact him at jonathancalla@gmail.com.

His first book, The Consummation of Dirk, was selected by judge Zachary Mason as the winner of the 2011 Starcherone Innovative Fiction Prize and is forthcoming from Starcherone/Dzanc Books in late 2012.

His fiction appears or is forthcoming in Unsaid, Pank, Witness, The Collagist, >kill author, Fringe, Washington Square Review, The Lifted Brow, and elsewhere.

Essays on Kafka, Thomas Bernhard, Rick Moody, and David Foster Wallace can be found in The Collagist, and Fiction Writers Review.

He lives in Japan.



In the middle of the twentieth century, Walt Disney Pictures released an animated Bildungsroman about an orphaned circus elephant with abnormally large ears named “Dumbo” (also the name of the film itself). Readers familiar with the tale should find little difficulty imagining their Narrator during those early afternoons, glumly established akimbo before his mother’s poor-quality Panasonic, quietly munching popped corn by the lightly-buttered handful, perversely, with almost religious compunction, compelled to witness the myriad outrages inflicted upon that poor pachyderm as hyperbolic rites of passage. Who with anything resembling a soul could check the floodwaters of feeling—as I failed to do daily for several consecutive weeks, weeping while the popcorn went flinty and cool—at the sight of those two outstretched trunks, poor bereaved mother tugging in vain against her bonds for a glimpse of the dysmorphic son, snaking a motherly trunk out through the bars, the boy shedding a pair of extraordinary tears, the sadness visible, enacted in the drooping, improbable ears.

Often I would reach up gingerly for my own ears, imagine my mother quietly earning our keep (or at least keeping busy; my father hadn’t left us poor) at the arts and crafts store tucked in between a pestilent Chinese kitchen and a “dollar mart” toward the median of a faceless commercial strip, poor woman, reaching out from behind the incarcerating cashier’s counter, trying to touch me with her own nose, which is where the image would obviously come apart.

But I recall this children’s entertainment with good reason: Readers who themselves enjoyed this unjustly neglected film (ludicrously dismissed by an ostensible expert as “cloying” and “thoroughly third-tier early Disney” in the only scholarly study I have been able to find) will recall the film’s critical second act—and its critical feature or prop: after a flight of Negro crows indulges in an all-too-plausible round of musical ridicule at the orphaned beast’s expense, their leader, Jim, lifts the mask of his affected animosity for but an instant—long enough to bequeath to the boy a magic feather said to enable miraculous flight.

Miraculously, the feather works, the elephant boy can fly—in defiance of even animated physical law, of course, but all great works of art forced to choose between faithfulness to body or spirit, elect the path of ether, transcendence, elevation, light with a casual slipping of corporeal bonds—and, feather clutched firmly in trunk, our emboldened young hero swoops back to the circus (the hellaciousness of which is in the final act fittingly literalized by its transformation into a blazing inferno).

So much to unpack here! Yet your Narrator had less use for the actual comeuppance than for the instant just prior. The peanut-firing, crowd-dazzling stunt-pilotry that culminated in glory and fame and so forth for the vindicated orphan struck me not merely as predictable, anticlimactic or even ineluctably Disney, but as authentically insidious, as a relinquishing of everything he had, for an instant of soaring satori, gained. In the moment he understands his capacity to fly but has not yet converted that power to flight, Dumbo is electric, he is invincible, he is alive; when he condescends to fly for the benefit of a throng implacably given to doubt until it can be made to see an elephant fly, he concedes every ounce of the power suffusing his elephantine frame, he has conceded and may as well join the disgusting peons bleating in the stands, he has stepped back into the tent, reentered the cycle of entertainer and entertained, he has needlessly given himself back, he has lost, I believed.

I would freeze the frame at the moment our plummeting hero seemingly headed for doom, searching in vain for that one transfiguring instant in which the boy registers his own strength, knows, not that he will fly, but that fly he may.

I carried my gun on me always. At first I might merely slip it into a pocket, or, lacking pockets, tuck it under the waistband of my briefs—which I have favored over boxer shorts ever since an unmentionable ordeal in the subterranean locker room after a gym class during that epoch of such blistering misery that I’ve declined to revisit it even here: “high school”—but soon I had purchased a patent-leather holster, tastefully embossed with a lanky semblance of scythe-wielding Death. Absently stroking the weapon’s grip I might stand at the cellar’s concrete window ledge and sip from a porcelain urn of strong coffee for hours, staring up at the swooping  transactions of birds. On brief midday sojourns to the mailbox I’d nervously finger its hard contours beneath the legging of my pajama pants. One night I compiled a list of about two-dozen well-known Westerns, appended at bottom a polite rental request, and slipped the missive under my mother’s bedroom door. Obliging woman that she was, she of course obliged, but I soon found my interest in these films was restricted to prolonged studies of the protagonist (or anti-protagonist—generally Eastwood)’s languid mannerisms and grizzled face. My internal conversations grew measured and laconic; I observed a subtle shift down-register in my thinking voice’s tone: where before the first hours of consciousness might have mapped out a tortuous dialectic debating various combinations of caffeinated beverage and sugar and milk, each alternative competing to justify its claim on the energy I would need to expend in its concoction (there were of course many mornings when the prospect so overwhelmed me that I abandoned plans to leave my cellar altogether, clutched a pillow over my face and tried to will myself back to sleep, in vain), now I would swing my legs in a theatrical arc from my cot, rise cool and serene, squint into some obscure middle distance and growl, “coffee.” (Of course, once I actually began to drink the coffee, the urge to loquaciousness was impossible to repress. I reveled in rococo expression, sometimes indulging myself with fist-pounding debates undertaken with myself in our comfortable breakfast nook.)

Naturally, courage came only in increments. One emboldened morning I made as if to join my mother at table for breakfast, the first time in months, subtly announcing myself from the doorway with a shy sweeping of throat. She started back from her perusal of the provincial “newspaper” she preferred to any material of substance (including the annotated Preliminary Readings Toward the Betterment of the Soul I had compiled for her one sleepless winter late-night and stapled to the bathroom door the next morning, which I had continued to update on occasion with works of philosophy, political theory, poetry, novels, drama, even the odd well-chosen farce as I saw fit, though I suspect she rarely dipped into this wealth), her features contorted into an approximation of something like terror, as if her eyes had alit on an ogre (clad only in the Cupid-patterned boxer-briefs she’d left in a touchingly tissue-papered department-store box at the top of the basement stairs the previous Valentine’s Day), where there ought to have been only her one remaining son. That stricken mien alone prolonged my exile for at least another week, as fondling the absurd pistol I silently wept over my hideous plight.

But no emperor will be bound by his island forever! Emerging, I began to consider possibility. Where the thought of being witnessed in daylight—in truth the thought of daylight itself—had long been an insupportable terror, I now began to let myself imagine. Cautious, even timorous, at first, I nevertheless began to entertain new, perhaps dangerous notions. Possibilities began to unfold. Often the impetus was my usual submersion in shame over some pitiful feature of my past, the familiar writhing humiliation as I recalled some abject inability to act like a man—yes, but how different things might have been with a gun! When I closed my eyes at night or for my customary late-morning nap, visions of myriad versions of me walking alternate paths of action and consequence, ramifications the one me I’d known had never been permitted to see, strutted out from wherever they’d begun, eyed me suggestively, gave an encouraging wink, danced. And one morning I eased out into the sunlight, jolly tingles tracing my scalp, a clownish smile contorting my face, every jouncy step gently buoyed by the bitumen springing from my tennis shoes’ soles. (“I’ll retake up tennis!” I happily vowed.)

Nothing much to report from this first timid venture—soon I was nervously sipping tea with milk and honey at my mother’s kitchen table, hunched over a picture-book rendition of Dumbo, but unable to concentrate on anything but the vestigal tickle of breeze on the skin of my neck. Yet there would be many more excursions. Each bringing me a bit further from home (and, perhaps, a step closer to god). Could it be merely the constant pressure on my upper leg, the ubiquitous steel (perhaps it was iron, as my artifact may have predated that illustrious alloy’s design and “Three-Rivers” mass-manufacture; strictly speaking, the cool surface kneading my thigh at every stride might have been primarily rust)? Maybe so. Often it occurred to me that I was only acting out another form of cowardice. Often, as my daily expeditions took me circling further from my basement bedroom base-camp—along once familiar streets, inspecting varieties of bark peeling from trees, even into stores, where I nervously fingered the merchandise, tip-toed in stride with conversing customers an aisle away—I heard the high indignant narrator of all my past experience protest nasally that this, too, would culminate in some sort of maudlin failure and shame, this couldn’t last; but I ignored him.

A more concrete concern attended the apparent age of my firearm. I wondered whether my fledgling liberation’s concealed guarantor would misfire at the moment of truth. In sober moments I reflected it certainly could, as I’d only tested it once (an embarrassing episode I prefer to leave bowdlerized)—but “could” no longer concerned me.

When I see an elephant fly, I’d croon, as I capered past puddles, lightly skipped over dogshit, tipped my hat (I wore a fedora) to strange cringing men who shrank from my passage like rats before an approaching train. Ducking under the outdoor market’s orange awnings I inspected strange, exotic fruit. Shook the colorful spheres, pressed them, curious, to the lobe of my left ear. I found I could spit with a startling new dexterity. Watching a well-formed orb take flight over numerous sidewalk-squares before quitting its parabola with a satisfying smack, I chuckled fondly at the old envy I’d felt when impoverished Hispanics snorted lustily and hawked as I faltered by in ambiguous (but powerful!) shame, lurching past the precocious splat to come on the asphalt before me—how inadequate I’d felt, how strangely implicated! when my own efforts achieved at best a sort of spluttery strand of drool.

My dipsomania was an unremembered dream. In lieu of crass intemperance, the desperate self-obliteration I once had sought in bottomless firkins of rum, I now devoted nights to sweet indulgence of the soul, the esoteric bliss that Milton, Blake, Donne, et al have—justly—plenteously praised: my mind a skyrocket, my contemplation a winged Prometheus, unbound—aloft, aspin, ebulliently free—delirious, more gloriously dizzy with each stratum of discernment sought and perfectly attained.

Mine was an uncorked spirit jetting upward: for the fire, for the glory, aglow with the radiance of a passion I’d once sophomorically dismissed on impulse, bound by what I imagined were its limits—when the confining inadequacy had always been my own. Yes, these books that once had been my soul’s mates, my cohort on the many arduous quests for vision that had been my être’s raison, had lost their force to move me: imagine my despair! . . . But now! Rare was the midnight I was not to be found pacing the converted study in the hollow quarters under my mother’s house, the cracked spine of a venerable tome perched on my commodious palm, my eyes shining with an ancient pleasure, the very organs seeming to pronounce their wordless thanks, pleased to be thrust back into service, engaged in their most exalted use, the tireless seeking of wisdom or knowledge, truth: sight.

I slept soundly, with the firearm tucked under the blanket on my lap, dreamless (though when I dreamed, the dreams were nice), as if sweetly tranquilized, but never for more than a few succulent hours. I was Apollo rising sunlike with the dawn, amazed at the ease with which I could mold perfection from the raw material (sunlight, breeze, espresso, eggs) of an unformed day. At first, my mother was confused: who was this demigod given to indifferent creation, who roamed the modest corridors of her dowdy house? To ease her aging soul, I had her procure from the fabric store a bolt of purple cloth, out of which I fashioned a long, flowing cape.

I wondered whether I ought to acquire a license, perhaps several other, more contemporary “pieces,” but surely none could replace the original, secret talisman, the gift—heaven’s kiss—I wore in a slim black leather holster slung now by bandolier across my chest. For superfluous kicks, I began to exercise: strength-training, Brazilian jujitsu, racquetball, Frisbee. I briefly dabbled in acrobatics. I drank a great deal of milk.

In the interest of being properly understood I should note—but why should I want to be understood? I was indomitable. Where before I had crept, I had slunk, toadied, skulked, moribundly slithered—I now strode. Or glided on air. I saw tiny cities sprouting from the planet’s curve, doomed erections of desperate men, the domes and steeples, radio antennae, monuments, plazas, statuary, stone arcades, pediments, pillars, towers of steel, glass, concrete, churches and financial fortresses, residential complexes, stately dwellings along expensive waterfronts, civic structures, universities—all giving with a satisfying crunch beneath the heel of my tennis shoe as I restlessly progressed toward the sun, that shy meniscus of beckoning light peeking up from the earth’s eastern rim. I was a nebula outshining the dawn, a radiant giant: I kicked over mountains, foundations quaked, I looked down at small men who looked up in fear, cowered in the shadow of this luminous titan rumbling calamitously past, plucking the turrets and spires of tall buildings to be arranged in gleaming bouquets he might bring home to his mom.

In bars (I hadn’t given up my cups entirely—merely the glum nursing of my former disease; I permitted myself the occasional craft beer, the nightcap’s glass of a well-appointed scotch) I met the barman’s intimidated gaze, ordered whatever the hell I wanted, without muttering, without shame. “Make it a Manhattan,” I might say, leering into his eyes as my fingers casually manipulated the crisp bill through complex twirling routines, daring him to question any facet of my taste: he never did. I tipped when I felt the service deserved it, and only then. As noted, I slept less. In the old days, ten, even twelve hours had not been enough. On waking I would stumble through the gloomy noonlight of my mother’s living room, where even a glimpse of my dead father, his photographed bust radiating order and strength, in stiff-pressed dress-blues, eying me more with pity than disdain from outside of time (in a tasteful mahogany frame, above the tone-dead piano, alongside the other portrait I still can’t conjure without pain), was enough to smother whatever paltry plans I might have begun to concoct in a haze while gulping down the dismal last mug of my first coffee pot. I’d begin to plan for an early bedtime that night—or, if I couldn’t last that long, a nap—justifying the delayed plans to find gainful work on the grounds that I couldn’t go out into the world when I wasn’t at my best.

But now!—often as not, on shelving the literary trove I’d plundered for several hours I might tuck myself under my cool quilted comforter, listen for the pleasing clangor of pipes and appliances’ buzz, then happily vault through hours of useful insomnia. Indeed the nocturne proved an ideal milieu for my fresh compositions—lyrical flights of fancy which for further diversion I might translate into the Latin, Italian or Greek I agreeably found myself able to access sans strain. I bounded up from my lodgings underground—which I’d already begun to renovate, by the way: converting one corner to an orchestral pit; another to a burgeoning sculpture garden, my work in the medium adhering to a decidedly classical mold; and covering an entire wall beside my comfortable cot with writing paper, so that I might transpose any literary whims the muse delivered in the night, if I cared to record them, although, as I’ve noted, my memory was a machine of fearsome precision, I remembered everything, I could will up whole episodes from my past in expert replication . . . at the peak of my powers I even remembered things that happened to you, Reader, though even if you were real (during this time your unreality was nothing to me, since you were not needed then) you would of course refuse to accept this, so I will only note in passing that one night, when the swerve came too late and the screaming steel collapsed around your beloved and carved into her too-supple flesh I was there.

I went whole days without eating. What was hunger but a badgering interruption, easily shooed away to go sport with the other childish things? On the other hand when I cared to, I feasted, savored the finest concoctions, sampled dishes selected from cornucopias of far-flung cuisines—few cultures or culinary traditions escaped the action of my well-polished teeth, the probes of my relentless, inquisitive tongue. The sweetest creams, choicest meats, sautéed vegetation, baroque desserts, alpine platters of exotic texture, color and shape: I chowed down without guilt (or the subsequent purges of my secretive past), even surprised my mother some evenings, at the end of her homeward commute, as she unsuspectingly entered our little abode into aromas of hearty stew, fresh loaves of baked bread, and, her very favorite, plum pudding.

I looked men in the eye. Attended to my long-neglected health. An impressed nurse practitioner reported back from the measuring stick that I appeared to have grown a good two inches. My skin shed its old reptilian pallor and I gave off what is sometimes described as a “glow”: in most cases this figure is mere shorthand, but I actually glowed. My teeth were white as snow.

Since boyhood I’d evinced a keen knack for taking far longer than any non-developmentally-impaired child should take to acquire a new skill, method or technique. For instance, consider my kindergarten incarnation, at his desk nervously fumbling to shade in the appointed sections of a so-called “color-by-numbers” as his classmates commence their construction of a vast construction-paper collage. Or the somewhat older boy who simply cannot comprehend an operation that should reverse the multiplying process, which latter he understands well enough.

One season my disappointed dad had me conscripted by our suburban community’s “Little League,” perhaps having mistaken my afternoon-spanning enactments of some fantastic series, a contest for the championship of some invented League (perhaps named after a rock or insect I’d spotted in the grass while lolling about brainlessly before being drawn into the concocted drama of sport) for a desire to join in the actual baseball games I could see contested on a portion of infield at the community park visible from our backyard. It isn’t clear to me now that I was even aware of any distinction between their baseball and my own; perhaps I wondered why their batting produced a hearty aluminum ping while my yellow plastic bat sent the Wiffle ball briefly aloft with a pfft on the few occasions I was able to connect—the infrequency of which successes I never let distress me, since I could easily take the ace reliever’s role, pitching preposterous strings of strikeouts (or Ks, as I’d happily discovered they were called after several months’ confused study of box scores in the morning sports page) until the unexpected hollow thunk signaled an instantaneous transfer of allegiance to the slugger, whose body I’d now happily inhabit, trotting the diamond of imaginary bases, occasionally picking up relative speed for a superfluous slide into “home,” then spending as long as the rest of the afternoon searching the grass beside our vinyl-paneled townhouse for the plastic ball, well beyond the spot to which it had actually dribbled after my “hit.” Imagine the confusion with which I confronted the velocity and terror of an actual baseball game contested at game-speed! Mercilessly, I was once made to pitch, a gruesome half-hour, jeering encouragement from my “teammates” gradually giving way to angry exhortations as each intrepid pitch sailed off on some new creative vector, penetrating vast territories far away from home plate. In barely a month (but what a terrible month!), my father saw reason. Granted my reprieve, I soon enough happily returned to my imaginary League.

But now! I could execute powerful roundhouse kicks after brief consultation with Bruce Lee’s standard text. (I’d erected a heavy bag amidst modest workout equipment in another alcove of the converted basement—which space, I should add, was quite big.) I could run effortless loops around the local high school’s track, happily outpacing my trackmates, casually loping on long after each had wheezed off in exhaustion. I even did re–take up tennis, batting the ball from a new wall (this one white), never interrupting my sleek bounding sessions to watch the graceless toads on parallel courts carry on their crass ostensible sets, let alone seek to take part—since the outcome of any such contest would have been preordained! . . . Yet what was physical vitality beside the dazzling rejuvenation of my mind: In one unexceptional week I retranslated the Upanishads. Dismissed Frank’s frivolous five-volume Dostoevsky with a single blistering page. I penned the first meaningful contribution to that bloated body of scholarship, Hamlet criticism, in untold decades. Crossed swords with old puffed-up Nabokov, elaborated the first principles of a new virtuosity in English prose . . . but it’s in poor taste to gloat over one’s merely professional triumphs. The interested Reader may of course consult the extensive record of these feats in the Library of Congress.

Avocationally, I acquired a proficiency with the electric guitar, pioneering the first genuine innovation in left-hand technique (too technical to elaborate in detail here) since the celebrated American virtuosos of the early nineteen-eighties ushered in an inevitable subsequent era of faux-virtuosos. I composed and performed in private (though my mother may have well listened in) an opera in one act, Incandesce—loosely following the narrative folds of the late twentieth century’s great prose epic.

I could of course go on. But the individual items on my list (none of which I have invented or embellished or so much as lightly retouched) matter less than the ease with which life seemed suddenly to come. I could do anything. Anything I wanted, I could do. And I wanted to do almost everything! Improbably enough (as a last illustration), one evening I met another young woman named Puff, this one’s astonishing beauty in perfect counterpoint to all that was middling or mediocre in my previous Puff. A corporate consultant, she stood six inches taller than I, even without her precipitous opened-toed (and what toes!) patent leather high-heels. On the plush cocoa carpet of her spacious loft’s roomy living room, beside a wall of silver-paneled glass giving out over a vista of twinkling towers, pink dusk, over a delicate picnic of prosciutto, sliced melon, Moscato d’Asti, we bantered, we joshed, the spicy repartee adding heat to our stolen glances’ brash smolder, as our eyes pre-enacted the night’s impending delights: soon enough we were entwined in the basin of her black marble tub, me applying a thin drizzle of honey to her generous thighs—but this too is beside the point.

I was invincible, I was the giant smashing towers &c.—

But it wasn’t enough.

I awoke one night in a sweat, I couldn’t breathe, my heart kicked, shadows cased the contours of my belowground domain: all of terror’s traditional symptoms.

“What’s this sweat?” I inquired, aloud, stripped the sodden bedding from my flesh, sprang flexibly to my feet. “You can have everything!” I pursued, the cement soothing and cold against my toes, “All you’ve learned to hate in your fellow amblers on this mortal coil (nights I was given to a certain grandiloquence) “the hoarding, hogging for themselves while you scuttled and hid under benches, behind walls, gnawed on crusts, crept along as far as possible out of everyone else’s way, scouring the underskirts of life lived by the actually living, hoping to stitch together scabs, husks, discarded bandages and such, in an approximation, a semblance of what you’ve never been permitted to have—and now you can have it all!”

“You,” I said, growing upset, pacing the basement in my flannel pajama pants and finely-ribbed tank, “have done the unthinkable!” I distractedly massaged a taut bicep: “You’ve upended the natural order! You’ve been handed the keys to the light—or the hell with keys! You’ve stormed the castle, breached the works, you’re in the inner courtyard, the throne room, you’ve sacked the capital, crowned yourself king!



I! I shouted, hurling a book of Tunisian “root poems” I’d been studying with some condescension across the cellar, upending a stack of operatic sketches I’d compiled over the past several days.

You’re through with weakness! Hunger, desperation! You have it all! What’s left? I dealt the snare drum a smart back-kick, toppling the whole set. . . .

And yet. . . .

I needed something more than the sum of what I could have, but that night I saw the relation in its monstrous perfection: my former weakness had been but a mask, concealing the countenance of my need, of all need: The possession of power is a freedom from the need to do . . . anything! Isn’t it? And yet. . . .

Something else was missing.

What else could I want?

Well.¹ I was of course no longer a practicing doctor, but no proscription existed to keep me away from my former place of work. I think back fondly on those glorious first days, campus agleam in early-April sunshine: The heterogeneous facility of my scholarship, the virtuosic peroration—words vaulting from within me almost without volition, volcanoes of molten syntax pouring forth in catastrophic waves. Naturally, I’d dispensed with the lecture hall, surreptitiously approaching the Humanities building, at the outset uncertain, but soon striding the broad flagstoned Arts and Humanities paths hollering truth into the bracing vernal air, at first a lone rhabdomancer, wandering bearded, in my flowing black cloak, beneath which I might fondly fondle my talisman, but soon enough in front of eager flocks of students who left their perches on sun-mottled brick, streamed out of the college cafeteria to join the ranks of my burgeoning throng: all were welcome.

They came alone or in similarly-attired pods, temporarily divested of their sneers and disdain (what a difference!), their slouches cast off like superfluous winter coats. My thirsty disciples assembled behind me as I paced academia’s gardens and paths, irrepressible discourse coursing freely from my lips, slaking but never quenching their thirst. Over my ordinary ensemble I wore the black cloak, hood flapping behind my head, and clasped my fingers over the place where a more portly ascetic’s paunch would have been. I smiled inscrutably behind a pair of dark glasses, when occasion called for it recited whole pages of diverse texts from memory, dictated drifts of free-form poetry that came to me like pure fragrance on the wind.

Of course my return was destined to be brief. From that first unforeseen day, among aging acolytes and reverent youth alike, I’d been pacing toward a terminal state. My day-long disquisitions mere recitals, rehearsals for the coming culmination of my work. I began to warn my unquenchable apostles that the end was coming soon. Nights, I restlessly mulled over the end of my journey, the apex—the consummate gift for the students who had come to me, opened their hearts to the truth I bore witness to (which was practically the whole student body, and much of the faculty, to say nothing of staff)—a closure, a termination, a gift, one last lecture, delivered in the “golden pavilion,” as we’d once facetiously referred to the dilapidated hall in which the College housed its literary lecturers back in very different days.

Staring through a weak semblance of myself in the kitchen’s dim likeness superimposed on an April evening near midnight, I abstractedly cleared my throat—a habit that had its origins as something of a nervous tic, but had since my Zarathustrian return evolved into something of an affectation. Often I’d flamboyantly “ahem” at the launch of a long-delayed address, a hush settling over the eager studentry, noting with a calm smile the mute hope they evinced that I—I—would spear light into their gloom, the subsuming darkness they’d only latently perceived as a fearful, ignorant trembling before the prospect of a mediocre trundle to death, the suspicion that maybe they’d been wrong—about what, they couldn’t guess—but that perhaps what they’d thought they understood (or not bothered to think about) was less simple than it had seemed, that what they had not only never known, but actively warded off with their disaffection and smirking ennui, sneering at everything they didn’t dare look in the face, poor young morons, obscurely pleased with themselves, or desperately pretending to be so, until very recently, when they’d begun to have vague premonitions, doubts that were equally obscure. . . who’d opened their eyes at last but couldn’t see past the shadow of something enormous and awful, wrong . . . the notes they would take! the desperate transcription, no doubt hoping to capture the contours of a key to the gate, a distant gate, a way out of the labyrinth they had never before guessed they were doomed to wander lost in for a handful of decades more . . . so that as they waited in obliging silence after one of my epic throat-clears, the sound seemed to acquire a certain spiritual heft, the potency of a ritual, and I enjoyed the spotless silence I could author with the twitch of an otherwise insignificant muscle halfway down the throat, I reflected fleetingly, staring through my gauzy mirror-self, the whole of this idea or course of thought striking me as a series of preverbal impressions clear enough not to require the belabored exposition I’ve attempted to provide them with here. The immensity of our inner lives is absurd. Empires of feeling and insight, understanding, swarm, rise and collapse outside time. I have known more in a moment of clarity than has been harnessed by all the letters assembled in all the pages of all the books gathering dust in all the shelves of all the libraries of history, I have seen farther, deeper, purer than the sum of all recorded sight, Reader: and so have you. My reflection faded as I stepped back from the glass.

On the appointed morning I dressed the part. My chinos, mahogany loafers in lieu of the dusty sandals I’d favored that month, a tie (but I thought better of the tie) all mantled beneath my flowing black cloak. In my briefcase I carried the notes to be delivered, knowing I’d be unlikely to consult them. And with a throat clear to end all clearing of throats, I began:



¹ An annoyingly lingering bourgeois allegiance to the facts compels this brief insertion noting that, yes, earlier that very day I’d read the ludicrous review (and then several-dozen equally ludicrous other reviews) of Henry Truck’s new ludicrous “book,” and that I’d then subsequently scoured the Internet in a frenzied lust for all Truck-linked material, with which, it transpired, I would be more than adequately supplied: he had his own well-researched Wikipedia page, an official website, a score of unofficial or “fan” sites, any number of links to schedules of the North American phase of his forthcoming book tour, after which he’d take a break before embarking on the European leg, cities TBA; his band—he’d apparently founded a band, called The Trucks—would in the meantime be performing, at a half-dozen of the more credible bars south of H——— Ave., the “reduction to essence” of Truck’s theoretics that he described the band’s experimental dithering as in an online periodical that straddled the underground–mainstream divide by appealing to the vacuous in both sides: asshole.

And it is admittedly the case that my initial visits to S——— College were not strictly pedagogical in intent, that I was in fact armed, not merely with the rhetorical firepower to swat Professor Truck and his “ideas” aside, and then not only with my trusty personal firearm but with thorough research: blueprinting mayhem, escape routes, tactics, notes compiled from the cutting edge of forensics—that I had in fact entertained notions of, well, murder, and even somewhat more ambitious plans, I was getting worked up: after all, what’s one dead professor? How about a whole dead department? Perhaps a spur-of-the-moment expansion to scholars and students of disparate, unrelated fields. Corpses all over campus! Engineering students’ heads reverse-engineered, brutality to render Zapruder, trifling, harmless, tame; I toyed with the notion of an actual tank! Haha! Turret blasts demolishing, the Institute for Israel–Palestine Studies reduced to rubble and flames! Free-safeties sniper-fired to shreds, Pretty co-ed pieces stuck in my vehicle’s treads. Dead mathematicians. Ahaha! What a hoot! Yes, I may very well have been plotting annihilation on a relatively epic scale, prepared to crown myself King! Of course, all of this was beside the point.


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