Rough, Grooved Surface

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Chapter 19

19

“I don’t know which way I’m going,

I don’t know which way I’ve come.”

—Coldplay, ‘Til Kingdom Come,’ X & Y (2005)

By the time I finished the first semester of my freshman year, my grades were barely above the threshold to keep my scholarship. I went to class enough to maintain, but nothing more. Somehow, my daily campus routine seemed silly and empty, while my evenings at the Hall felt worthwhile.

Though I was still technically living in a dorm room, I spent most nights in an apartment down the street from the Hall. Flatrock and UB actually rented the place, but in reality it was a revolving door of random bodies. The spare room and two couches were pretty much constantly occupied, and most nights I was filling one of the spots.

Occasionally, I would find a girl at the bar. On those nights, I’d usually go back to my dorm room for privacy, since my roommate rarely stayed on campus on the weekends, but that was about the extent of my campus life.

As fun as the random hook ups could be, the next morning left me plagued by nagging thoughts of Aimee. Few things in life are as jarring as abruptly finding out that your life has become a cliché. I had spent my whole life desperately wanting to leave my small hometown, and now that I was finally gone, all I could do was look back. Even with my limited capacity for self-reflection, I knew it was a little pathetic and sad.

Beyond the next-morning bouts of shame, I also tended to avoid taking many girls home because I hated the idea of missing out at the Hall. Not being there to witness the genesis of a new story or crazy turn of events. Of course, since Whistler had christened me with my new name, my desire to witness the action had become a running joke. Did you get that down, scribe?...Where’s your little black book?...Make sure the Scribe takes a note, ok?

It was all harmless, and a nickname cemented my place within the crew.

As time went on, my duties at the Hall increased. By the middle of spring, I was doing a little bit of bartending, and by the end of May, I was helping to close up the bar on the slow nights. While I thoroughly enjoyed my increased role at the Hall, the hours were clearly taking a toll on my grades, and just before final exams, I got my first warning letter from the Dean. One more semester of low grades, and my scholarship would be cancelled.

I arrived at the Hall about an hour before the bar opened. Whistler was sitting in his usual perch at the back table talking to Bonnie when I arrived. I slapped the letter on the table and slouched into a chair across from Whistler.

“Well,” I said, “they’re threatening to revoke my scholarship.”

Bonnie snorted out a scoffing laugh. “Of course they are,” he said. “Those places are all about control.”

“I knew it was coming,” I continued. “I’m just surprised that they are threating this already. I thought I’d have some more time.”

“Well,” Bonnie replied. “Things don’t work out, you could always move in with me.”

“Yeah, and then I’d have to get a real job, too. The job here is great, but it’s not exactly a career.”

Bonnie threw a quick glance at Whistler, but he seemed to shoot him down with a scowl. I pretended not to notice, but I was sure that it was there. A quick, wordless conversation. That’s one of the benefits of a life spent as a constant observer. You have a tendency to catch the things that others hope that you miss.

“I think you need to stick with school for a while longer,” Whistler said. “You don’t have any idea what you want to do in the future. Besides, it’s important to maintain contact with the school.” He pointed towards Bonnie. “Most of these jackasses have dropped out already, and we need to maintain contacts over there. For business.”

For a guy that was managing a bar with a fairly meager flow of customers, Whistler talked a great deal about business. Most weekends, the bar did ok, but with the amount of booze the workforce took from the place, it was hard to see how he turned much of a profit.

“I guess I’m just going to have to cut back on the time I spend up here,” I said. The thought of pulling away from the Hall to spend more time back at school left me feeling empty and morose. For some reason, the Hall had felt like home from the moment I stepped through the door, and I couldn’t stand the thought of giving up even a moment, especially not to sit in some stuffy basement classroom, listening to lectures on British Literature and Sociology.

“What if there was a way to buy you a little more time?” Bonnie asked. “Which Dean signed that letter?”

I picked up the paper, a read the name. “Dean Grayson.”

Bonnie immediately erupted into a fit of laughter. Within a few seconds, Whistler was following suit. “I don’t get it,” I said. “What’s so funny?”

As I tried to get them to stop laughing long enough to explain the joke, Karl walked through the door. “Hey Karl,” Bonnie shouted. “Why don’t you tell Scribe here about Dean Grayson?”

“You mean the Un-cougar?”

Karl’s response elicited a fresh round of laughter from Bonnie and Whistler. All the while I was sitting at the table completely in the dark. Sensing my frustration, Whistler leaned forward and grabbed my shoulder. “Dean Grayson has a bit of a reputation, especially with the kind of ‘troubled’ young men that tend to gravitate to our little group.”

“And I’m guessing she’s not exactly pin-up material?”

“Hell no,” Karl shouted.

“She should be guarding a bridge,” Bonnie added. “She’s as wide as she is tall, and she’s got chins for days.”

“Yup,” Karl agreed. “She looks like a fleshy Muppet.”

Once again, the group burst into wild laughter, but this time I laughed along with them. “I appreciate the help, guys, but I’m not going to bone some hideous middle-aged woman just to extend my scholarhip.”

Bonnie grabbed his phone from his pocket, and flipped it over to the table. “You might not have to seal the deal,” he said. “Take a look at that.”

When I picked up the phone, I saw an app called ‘SpyCorder’ pulled up on the phone. “What’s this?”

“It’s an app,” Bonnie said with cheerfully finality.

“Well I can see it’s a fucking app,” I said. “What’s it do?”

“Oooh, that’s what you should have said then.” Over the weeks, Bonnie and I had grown close enough to constantly work our way under each other’s skin. It was the kind of thing that made me feel even more at home up at the Hall because it was exactly the way I interacted with Mark and David. Of course, knowing that didn’t make me want to punch him in the face any less. He smiled one of annoying, self-important mock smiles before he continued. “It’s like a James Bond kind of thing, a secret recorder on your phone.”

“Big fucking deal,” Karl said. “Don’t all cell phones record voice memos and shit.”

“Yes,” Bonnie continued, taking on the tone of an infomercial salesman, “but this one is different.” He picked up the phone and showed it around the room like it was coated in gold. “You can record while the phone is in sleep, OR…” he pulled something out of his pocket in a grand, sweeping gesture. “You can use this little guy to record!” he held up a tiny disc, about the shape and size of a quarter.

“The fuck is that?” Whistler snorted. Though he often played the role of our crotchety old father-figure, when it came to technology, he was truly an old man. He was strangely paranoid about cell phone conversations in general, and he absolutely despised text messages.

“This,” Bonnie continued, still walking around the room continuing his salesman impression, “is a microphone, and it works directly with the app.” He flipped the small disc around in his hands over and over again. “The really amazing part is the range. It can reach up to a half-mile.”

“Why the fuck would you buy that thing?” Karl asked. “It’s so stupid. What would you ever need something like that for?”

Bonnie held his hands open and gestured around the room. “For a situation just like this, asshole!” he leaned forward and set the microphone down on the table. “The really amazing part is the range. It can reach up to a half-mile.”

Karl nodded his reluctant approval. “So you could easily stand outside the administration offices with the phone, and record a conversation inside?” Karl asked.

“That’s right,” he said.

Whistler broke into a wide, Cheshire grin. “I like it,” he said. “I really can’t stand that bitch, anyway.” He tapped triumphantly on the table top. “This will be perfect.”

Two days later, I was standing outside the administration offices, attempting to find the courage to follow through with the plan. “This is a terrible idea,” I said. “Let’s just go.”

When we worked out the details—after closing time over a bottle of Canadian Club, the plan seemed like a sure thing. Standing out in front of the offices, however, it seemed juvenile, and silly, and almost certain to fail.

“Don’t worry about it,” Whistler said, patting me on the shoulder. “It’s going to be fine. Bonnie will record it, and then I will take care of everything else.” He straightened the collar of my shirt before patting me on the shoulder again. “Just be sure to seem desperate, and pathetic…and poor.”

“Oooh.” Bonnie stuck his finger out and poked me in the chest. “Don’t forget to talk about your dead mom, too. That will be great.” I flipped him off, and he handed me the small microphone.

“Do I need to turn it on or anything?”

“Nope,” Bonnie said. “Already on and connected. We’re good to go.”

I took a deep breath and pushed open the heavy wooden doors to the administration offices.

I can’t believe I’m doing this.

After a twenty minute wait, Dean Grayson’s secretary finally escorted me into her office. As we walked through the door, I was struck by the opulence of the room. It was a huge office, with vaulted ceilings and massive built-in bookshelves. In addition to books, the shelves were packed with all manner of knick knacks and ornaments. Bronze busts, tiny potted plants, and varies book-ends and paper weights. Between the wood-paneled walls and oil-based artwork, it was clear that she was doing her best impersonation of an Ivy League professor’s office.

Whitehaven was fond of using the slogan ‘The Harvard of the Midwest,’ but nobody seemed to buy into it quite as heavily as Dean Grayson.

“Thank you, Clarice. Oh, and here, can you take these over to President Paulson’s office before you leave for lunch?”

“Sure, but it’s a little early…”

“Oh, that’s ok,” she continued. “I’ll finish up here and then head out to lunch myself.”

As the secretary left, she pulled the door shut behind her with a dull thud that echoed through the massive office. She walked around the desk and sat in a large leather desk chair, making a sweeping motion and inviting me to sit in front the desk.

As I sat, she smiled a gooey smile that made shivers run up and down my spine. While I assumed that the guys had exaggerated when they described her looks, I began to wonder if they were being kind. In addition to the multiple chins and paunchy belly, she had an actual wart on the side of her face that seemed to be growing a small black cluster of hairs.

To make matters worse, she was wearing a tight-fitting and lacey silk shirt under her pants suit, and the second our conversation began, she ditched the jacket and hung it on the back of her chair.

“So, Mr. Kauffman…” She flipped through a manila file-folder sitting on her desk and made a series of short clucking sounds. “You have not had a good semester, it seems.”

She stopped and looked at me again, a grotesque and vaguely lascivious smile spreading across her lips.

For a moment, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to go through with the whole charade. I was far from an actor, and this felt exactly like playing a role. I took a deep breath, and I heard Whistler’s calming voice in the back of my head. “It’s not like your lying…just tell the truth, play it all up to your advantage…”

I started in with a diatribe of pity and loss. I told her about Tommy, and my mother. I even lamented about my father’s degenerate, criminal lifestyle. Though my skin crawled to act so whiney and pathetic, there was a part of me that liked it. Once I got on a roll, I was somehow able to divulge my secrets and desires to this trollish woman much easier than I even could to a shrink. Who knew catharsis would come from offering yourself as bait to a sexual predator?

Half-way through, I stood from my chair and nervously paced around the room so that I could take a quick peak out the window. I nearly blew the whole thing when I saw Bonnie grinning stupidly on the quad below, giving me an enthusiastic thumbs-up as he listened to our conversation.

When I finished speaking, I sat back down in the chair across from the Dean, spent from the exhaustion of my little one-man play. The Dean smiled and nodded, and for a moment, I thought the whole thing was going to be a huge waste of time. After twenty-minutes of soul bearing, her face seemed completely unchanged. I was terrified that she was going to throw me out of the office with little more than a cursory warning about study habits.

Then, she rose slowly from the desk walked slowly to the front, and sat down across from me. “You certainly have dealt with a terrible family history,” she said, “and I can certainly understand how college life has been an adjustment.” She reached back and picked up the folder off the desk. “And you don’t have any trust fund or endowments from your mother’s death?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “My brother’s illness basically put us in the poor house, and Mom’s insurance didn’t do much more than pay for the funeral.”

“I see…I see,” she said, placing the folder gently back down on the desk before leaning forward. “In my capacity as Dean, I do think I can help with your situation,” she said slowly. “And I take a lot of pride in helping young people through a situation like this, especially a nice young man like you…”

She put her hand on my shoulder, and then let it fall, brushing her hand along my chest as she spoke.

As the situation unfolded, I found myself dumbfounded that it was actually playing out this way. How could a person in her position so blatantly abuse her power? How were her activities common knowledge, yet she continued on her position? Secure, in her large office on the top floor of the administrative building?

The corruptibility of power is just one of those lessons we have to learn over and over again in our lives, at least if you’re not lucky enough to ever be the one in control.

She leaned forward and talked softly, and I hoped desperately that the little disk in my front pocket could still pick up her voice. “I’m going to need you to put in the work, though,” she said. “There’s one or two things you’ll need to do in return.”

As I leaned back, she reached her hand down inside my thigh. Worried that we might not have enough on tape, and petrified of what she might do next, I jumped to my feet and screamed. “Why are you touching me like that?”

She walked over to me and placed both hands on my shoulders. “Calm down,” she said. “We’re both adults here, and I think you know what I need from you.”

She started to lean pull me closer to her when I heard a merciful rattling at the door.

“What in God’s name…” As she spun around to walk over towards the door, Whistler managed to break through. “What in hell is the meaning of this?” She shouted at Whistler as he strolled across the office floor, holding the cell phone high in the air, waving it around the room like a talisman. After a few seconds, she seemed to recognize Whistler. “You!” she shouted. “If I’m not mistaken, you have been permanently banned from this campus! If you don’t get out, right now, I’ll be calling security.”

Whistler smiled his broad grin and shook the phone a few more times in her general direction. “Oh,” he said. “I’m not so sure you’re going to want to do that!”

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