Rough, Grooved Surface

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Chapter 14

Part II

Brothers, of a Different Kind

14

“I’m goin’ down to the Greyhound station
Gonna get a ticket to ride…

Ride til the sun comes up and down around me.”

—Blaze Foley, ‘Clay Pigeons,’ Sittin by the Road (2010)

I arrived at Whitehaven College in the summer after my senior year with a sense of purpose that I had never known in my entire life. I was ready to turn a corner, consequences be damned. It was true that I felt like shit for leaving Aimee behind, I couldn’t deny that, and although similar pangs of guilt accompanied any thoughts of David or Mark or any of the other people back home who had helped me through so much, I felt resolute in my conviction to be selfish.

So much had been taken from me, and I was ready to take it all back. Of course, I had no way of knowing then that nearly every young body milling about the campus at Whitehaven felt almost exactly the same. Each passing generation feels entitled to their mini-rebellions, firm and self-assured in their unwavering belief that they are on a path to avoid the pitfalls of their forefathers.

It’s this profound sense of privilege that is the true rite of passage separating the young from the old. By the time we are wise enough to realize that the universe is just as unimpressed by us as it was our parents, there is a new generation of entitled youth to demand their share of the spotlight.

But when I left Culver County, I was still years away from such grand pronouncements. I saw only the prospect of something new, and at the time, I had no doubts that I deserved this grand new life.

I suppose my early days at Whitehaven were not unlike those of most freshman undergraduates. I made a few friends, ate shitty food, stayed up late watching terrible movies in the dorm lobby. For all my desires for change, those early Whitehaven days weren’t much different from the rest of my life. I was a quiet, voiceless figure in the background, content to observe and tag along.

Of course, for a river rat like me, the profound range of personality and thought that I encountered was an unbelievable shock. As a small, Midwestern liberal arts college, Whitehaven was not exactly a mecca of cultural diversity, but to me is was eye-opening. Growing up in rural America, my beliefs and convictions—however unsettled they might have been—were rarely challenged. Like most of middle-America, the only major social divide in Drury centered on race. The majority of white faces in town that you might meet would proudly explain how tolerant they were of the ‘black’ section of town, while at the same time quietly wagging a finger at those racist, less enlightened folks you might meet. They give the rest of us god-fearing Christians a bad name.

It had never occurred to me that simply having a ‘black section’ of town was, in itself, a form of socially-implied racism. I’d always considered myself far too intelligent a person to be a bigot, but meeting and growing close to new people, I realized, for the first time, exactly how narrow and isolated my worldview really was.

Of course, in many ways I was starving for an expanded world view. The deaths of Tommy and Mom had left me without any foundation at all. For every single Sunday of my childhood, my mother had taken us to church and fed us our weekly helping of Christian nourishment.

Trust in the Lord with all of your heart and all of your mind…The Lord, your God, will provide…He will be with you wherever you go…

Like my mother, Aimee believed those things too, not because she had been told, but because she truly believed. I don’t know that I ever had real faith in anything. I was just going along with the program, biding my time. I never dis-believed because I never had to think that hard about anything, at least not until cancer and a random patch of gravel forced me to.

The church was more than an obligation. It was a logical extension of our everyday lives. Even my father, a well-known antisocial and shiftless thug, had attended church on a semi-regular basis. Growing up, church attendance seemed like a given, a mandatory obligation for all but the most desperate and lost souls.

It was this strict religious structure that had made my break from God and the church so severe. Like a worn and crusted bandage, the dissolution of my engagement with God had to be abrupt and severe. I had to rip myself away cleanly and quickly, and I was absolutely thrilled to meet like-minded religious dissenters when I came to Whitehaven.

I took part in many spirited debates—theist, atheist, deist, agnostic, agnostic (theist), agnostic (non-theist)—the amount of labels and perspectives was staggering. Over and over again, I found myself sitting on worn polyester loveseats in some dingy student lounge, arguing over the finer points of God and religion with anyone and everyone who might be willing to listen. For the better part of fifteen years, I had equipped myself to argue the affirmative position, to extol a complete, unyielding faith in God. To now sit and argue the complete opposite had a vaguely intoxicating effect, like I was somehow indulging in forbidden fruit.

It was easy to argue the downfalls of religious institutions. One had only to watch the evening news to find out all manner of scandal involving the church, and such breaches of public trust were by no means a modern invention. If man has proven anything over the course of our brief tenure on earth, it is that we are perfectly capable of removing God from the highest possible pedestal and replacing him with ourselves.

People will tell you that money is the root of all evil, but my experience has shown me that money pales in every respect to power. People with no power desire money, but those with true power desire nothing at all. Humanity has proven this fact over and over again for millennia.

As a result, the tainting effect of human hands on the church was an easy fact to prove.

The harder position to discern was the nature of God himself, or herself or whatever you might call the ‘one true deity.’ My inclination was to reject God absolutely, to scrub away any acknowledgement. The more I argued, though, the harder the point was to believe.

I once finished off a box of Franzia wine with a Pakistani student from my floor named Tariq. Like most of the casually bigoted white faces around him, I had assumed that he was Muslim or Hindi. As such, I was surprised when he broke into the most impassioned defense of Christianity that I had ever encountered.

Unlike most, who simply gave up after a half-hour or so, Tariq refused to simply let the point fade away. “But you are talking about the human church,” he said, “and I am talking about GOD.” He said the word ‘God’ with a profound reverence, holding his voice for a long breath, as if the word itself contained many syllables. “In my life, I have seen many beautiful and horrible things, and in all the beauty and the pain, GOD has been the constant.” He looked past my head as though he were staring straight through the basement wall and off into some unseen cosmos. “Too many times, I have seen the interconnected nature of all human endeavors, I have witnessed a great beauty and truth that tells me that something greater than man exists.”

He went on to say how every single action in the world led to consequences that served something too powerful and magnificent to be simple chance. I countered with the butterfly effect and chaos theory, but he refused to move off his mark even the slightest degree. “No,” he said. “I can accept your rejection of the humans that make up GOD’s church, but there is no way you can tell me that GOD himself does not exist.”

I profoundly admired his conviction. Tommy’s cancer and my mother’s accident had been the impetus for my rejection of God, but the questions had been lying below the surface for as long as I could remember. Somehow, those fears lie at the heart of every monster that sleeps below my bed, the boogeyman hiding in the recesses of my soul. Like everyone, I wanted to believe that, when push comes to shove, I would prove to be a brave man, a man of action.

Somehow, though, I doubted it.

Tariq was, without a doubt, a man of action and faith, and I was a man of inaction and indecisiveness. Long after we had pulled the foil bladder from the box of cheap wine and sucked down the last drops, Traiq’s words had stuck with me. Was there really meaning in every action, from the substantial to the benign? Or was it all just more bullshit? Chaos heaped upon turmoil, surrounded by anarchy?

Though I wanted desperately to believe the later, I couldn’t truly convince myself.

It was, after all, a profoundly random occurrence that first brought me into contact with Whistler and his merry little band. Had it not been for a chance meeting in one of my classes, I probably would have had a painfully normal experience at Whitehaven. In four years—or maybe four and half depending on how calculus class went—I would have been just another face standing on the riser, accepting my diploma from some ancient white man in a flowing black cloak.

If I had decided, on that particular afternoon, to take a nap or to pop a beer (as I had begun to do more and more regularly), I doubt that I ever would have even met Whistler.

Tariq would have pointed to that decision, the fact that I didn’t say ‘Fuck it’ and skip class on that particular day as all the proof he needed to prove his point. Though I had only attended about half of the meetings of the class, I chose to go on that day, the day that I would have the chance encounter that would alter my life forever. I called it coincidence and forgot about it, but Tariq would have called it fate—and he would have believed it with vigorous faith.

My plan for the future was simple from the very beginning. I would attend classes for a few years, earn a degree, and then move to Chicago. There, I would start a nice, new urban lifestyle that would offer a stark contrast to my days in Culver County. I loved the idea of the traffic and the people. The thought of dwelling so close to so many people, yet living in absolute anonymity. The comforting loneliness of mass transit or a congested morning freeway commute. It all seemed like a sublime alternative to living in a place where you couldn’t take a shit without folks who lived two miles away having an intimate knowledge.

It was all perfectly logical and prepared. A business degree, a few years working my way up to a junior executive position, eventually a wife and a few kids in the suburbs. A forgone conclusion—the modern American Dream, or a scrubbed down, whitewashed version of it anyway.

The course that altered my simple path was the bane of existence to almost all the freshmen who attended Whitehaven. In adhering to its Presbyterian roots, Whitehaven required all students to attend at least two semesters of religion courses. Given the fact that those courses had little to do with most anyone’s majors, the bulk of the freshmen signed up for the same two introductory survey courses that fulfilled the major—courses that were taught on a rotating basis by just about every member of the faculty. More often than not, the faculty members seemed even less enthused by the subject matter as the students. As a result, the freshmen religion courses tended to be the most-often skipped classes on campus.

My freshman year, the course was being taught by a man named Werner, a mouse-faced, rail-thin man in his early fifties. He wore dark-rimmed glasses that were a bit too small for his round face, and he generally dressed like a middle-school principal, all sweater vests and cheap wool blazers.

Dr. Werner’s most memorable quality was the fact that, as he talked, a glob of thick, white spittle congealed in the corner of his mouth. Every, single, time. You could mark your time in the class by taking note of the size of Werner’s spit glob.

On the day of my fateful encounter, the class had nearly hit the mid-point of the semester. More than likely, I was pushed to go on that particular day because I had missed too many consecutive classes, and I felt a dreaded obligation to attend. The particular lesson was about religious extremism. He talked about the growth of terrorism in the Muslim world, and began running through the similarities between Christianity and Islam. He had just started discussion Abraham’s important genealogical role in both the Bible and the Koran, when a student that I had never seen before began laughing hysterically in the back corner of the room.

His loud, jarring hyena laugh sucked the air out the room and reverberated off the cinderblock walls, forcing everyone in the room to turn and gaze in his direction. As a general rule, human beings are conditioned for routine. We are comforted by expectation. In this situation, we all understood that our job as students was to sit there, quietly, listening to Werner drone on about this or that, all the while paying more attention to the spit glob than the words.

This man, though, overtly refused to follow the program. He was loudly and deliberately breaking protocol while the rest of us watched in mute horror. Even Werner stood in absolute awe, watching the young man doubling over with laughter. I looked again to see if I had ever seen the student before, but I was sure that I hadn’t. He had a slight blonde streak in his close-cropped hair, and on the side of his neck I could see a noticeable red birthmark. I was quite sure that I had never seen this person in my life. Everything about his countenance seemed sculpted and severe. Everything about him created the impression of a sharp angle.

His wire glasses stood out boldly against his face in part because his head was almost completely shaved, casting greater distinction on the thin, black frames. When he finally finished laughing, he took the glasses off and wiped his eyes in a deliberate, orchestrated motion. He sighed loudly and continued chuckling to himself as he cleaned his lenses.

Finally recovering from his shock, Werner attempted to regain control of his classroom. “Do you have something you’d like to share with the class?”

The student in back took a deep breath and shot a sly half-smile back at the professor. “That is the way you’d phrase it, isn’t it. I mean, that’s how professors are always phrasing things. By that,” he was clearly drawing out his response, like a cat batting a mouse back and forth, “I mean you are very concerned with the good of the collective, the enlightenment of us all…”

Dr. Werner began to speak again, but the man continued through the attempted interruption.

“…The problem, of course, is that you don’t really give a shiny white fuck about the true enlightenment because your job is dictated by perpetuation of the status quo.”

In a uniform movement, we all shifted our gaze back to Dr. Werner, as if watching a particularly sharp serve in a tennis match. If Werner noticed our shift in attention, he didn’t let on. Instead he stared back at the student with a growing rage, his pale cheeks growing red and drawing even greater attention to the white glob of spit at the corner of his mouth.

Seizing on Werner’s inability to speak, the man continued. “You talk about Islam being an Abrahamic religion, and you point out to these young, expectant, white faces why they should really reconsider their beliefs of those scary Islamic terrorists.”

Finally, allowing himself to be drawn into the debate, Werner shouted back, globs of foamy white spit cascading off his lips and spraying in every direction. “That’s right! I’m trying to broaden their perspective. I’m trying to make them understand their commonality with…”

“NO!” As the shout echoed and reverberated off the walls, the man slapped his hand down on the desk. “You’re explaining the Islamic faith in a way that makes it seem white, and Christian, and palatable to your privileged, white, Christian audience.”

I didn’t need to look around the room to know that he was right. Despite my eye-opening experiences with students like Tariq, Whitehaven was, in large part, a white, upper middle class college. Like nearly all of my classes, this room was filled with fifteen or twenty young men and women with almost exactly the same socio-economic backgrounds. We were all Caucasian, middle-to-upper-middleclass young people that hailed from roughly the same five hundred-mile radius.

The desired result of a liberal arts education is the formation of free-thinking, well-rounded young people who are going to add to society. In practice, though, Whitehaven was achieving the opposite result. We were a uniform blob of cohesive thought, silently consuming knowledge as we trudged towards our terminal degree of choice.

In every anti-establishment story that I had ever read—1984, Fahrenheit 451, “Harrison Bergeron”…—I had always identified with the counter-cultural protagonist. In my mind, I was the one who bravely questioned authority, the no-named hero who would rise up to protect the masses.

When we studied the Civil Rights Movement in school, I had been filled with appropriate amounts of disgust, and I assured myself, had I been born in 1950, I would have recognized the wrongs being committed around me. I would have been one of the enlightened few.

The truth is, I probably would have responded much the same way as I responded to the disruptive student in the back of the room. I would have stood in the crowd, gap-mouthed and immobile, not adding to the fray one way or another. That is what I had done for most of my life…the human equivalent of Sweden. A neutral third party.

For a moment, the room sat in the kind of awkward silence that always caused me to sweat. For some reason, it is only in moments like this that I notice the dull electric hum of florescent light.

“I think it’s time for you to leave,” Werner finally said, scrambling up to the desk in the front of the room.

As Werner stepped towards the desk, the man in back stood abruptly. For the first time in the entire tense conversation, he betrayed a slight degree of anger. Though he had raised his voice, he had never appeared truly angry. As he stood, though, you could see a tension in the man’s shoulders. This was a man who carried with him a threat of violence.

“And I think it’s time that you stopped perpetuating the same bullshit agenda that you’ve been preaching your entire…weak…impotent…little life.”

With each word he spoke, he took another step towards Werner, who had finally reached the desk and pulled out his cell phone. Werner stared back at the man, his phone in hand, like a frightened animal caught in sudden headlights. The man stopped at Werner and pointed a finger a few inches from Werner’s right eye. “You’re not an educator. You’re a fucking puppet.”

When he was finished, the man calmly shrugged his shoulders, turned, and strolled out the open door, leaving Werner, still red-faced and spit-mouthed, clinging to his cell phone like an angry toddler clutching his favorite toy.

Within a few minutes, we all began to break into nervous chatter. Werner asked if anyone knew the name of the student so that he could report him to the dean, but no one seemed to have a clue. None of us could ever remember seeing him, even though it was the tenth time the class had met.

Apparently realizing that he had no clue what any of our names were, Werner took role. When he found only two female absent students on his class list, he came to the audible conclusion that the mystery student didn’t even belong in the class. He stared about the room, mumbling to himself in dazed confusion.

After a few seconds, he recovered enough to fumble through a few cursory notes for the following week, before dismissing the class twenty minutes early. As we began to file out, he slammed his body down into a faux leather office chair with a long, deep sigh. He looked exhausted, like a prize-fighter sitting in his corner in the twelfth round. As we shuffled out the door, Werner said nothing. He just continued to stare at the empty chair in the back corner of the room.

When I walked outside, I saw the man from the back of the class. He was standing twenty or thirty yards away on the walkway that led to the lower quad, frantically clicking at a small Bic lighter and trying to light his cigarette. A quick check of my watch revealed that I had about forty minutes before my next class started, a biology class on the opposite end of the campus.

To this day, I’m not really sure why I wanted to follow the man. In all honesty, the guy seemed a little crazy. What kind of a person shows up to a class that he isn’t even enrolled in, then interrupts the professor’s lecture with a profanity-laced tirade? Was it a political statement? Subversive attack? Half-assed public service announcement?

I remember standing there in the center of the quad, watching the man walk off down the path to the lower quad, then glancing in the opposite direction towards the science building.

Once again, my argument with Tariq came back to me. The butterfly effect. Faced with two very literal paths, I was forced to make a decision. One more flap of the butterfly’s wings. Usually, those decisions come and go without too much fuss. As a general rule, I tended to keep my head buried in the minutia and continue on, blissfully unaware of the bigger picture.

In that moment, though, standing on that well-manicured pathway, dead center of the campus that was to be my vehicle for achieving my future, I actually felt the gravity of the decision. I wasn’t sure what, but I knew that my choice in that particular moment was going to mean something. The choice between dutifully attending my biology lab or turning to follow the aggressive—possibly psychotic?—stranger. It was a choice that had weight.

As I turned my back on the science building and walked towards the lower quad, I could smell the stranger’s cigarette drifting back at me while I followed him down the path.

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