Monday, October 27, 2008

Fiction Excerpt, from "What She Thought"

An excerpt from the chapter "What She Thought" in the novel A Stranger on Earth, a work-in-progress.

(c) DG

When Sarah returned to Dr. Whitaker’s office, his door was closed, and there he had a stack of work for her to do at the desk at which she sat. It almost felt like punishment. Was the stack inevitable? A sign of how busy he was, of how necessary she was to him—or was it some kind of warning? She dug into it.

Dr. Whitaker opened his door, and they exchanged greetings.

“I don’t expect you to do all that this afternoon,” he said.

“Good,” she said, smiling.

He laughed.

“Is there something you need me to do first?” she asked.

He said, “It would be great if you could get the photocopying out of the way.”

“Great,” she said, sounding dispirited.

“Do as much of it as you can. I can get someone else to finish if you don’t,” he said.

“I’ll do it,” she said, going through the stack to pull out the material to be copied.

Dr. Whitaker smiled. How did she manage to be efficient and honest about the dullness of it?

Sarah, her head down, thought, I hope he’s not going to watch me go through this.

“Let me know if you have any questions,” said Dr. Whitaker.

“I will,” she said, not looking at him.

Dr. Whitaker smiled again, turned, and walked into his office. He sat down, his phone rang, and he quickly picked it up.

“I did see Scott Jaschik’s piece on the Inside Higher Education web site,” said Dr. Whitaker. “I thought Jaschik quoted some good advice on how to manage senior colleagues,” said Dr. Whitaker. There was silence from his office then laughter. “Well, you’re right—if you’re going to smother someone with kindness you have to be capable of kindness, or a good actor.”

Sarah heard Dr. Whitaker mumble something, and then he stood, walked to the door, and closed it.

She waited a few minutes, then wrote a note for her desktop—In the Copy Room, Back Soon—and went off. Timothy stopped by not long after she returned, and when she again complimented him on the songs by others that he and his band interpreted, he said, “I like my own stuff. I wouldn’t want my own work forgotten, but I like to find what’s good in the work that other people have done and share that, just as I want my own work shared.”

Sarah watched him, thoughtfully, and said, “That’s not a bad definition of civilization.” She felt something—and turned to see Dr. Whitaker watching her, and listening to her conversation with Timothy. “I mean, keeping the best, the most intelligent, most pleasing and useful thing—isn’t that that what we call civilization?”

Timothy turned to see where she was looking, nodded a hello to Professor Whitaker, then lowered his voice and said to Sarah, “I agree. I’m inclined to think that intelligence and spirit are what really matter, whatever form they come in. The difficulties of the world, of life, tend to obliterate everything else.”

Sarah looked at him, but didn’t say anything. She was wondering what was the most difficult he had ever faced. She was thinking how wonderful it was to be able to talk to him, and to hear things that made sense to her.

“What?” he asked.

“I was thinking that sometimes it seems as if life is figuring out how to live with disappointment,” she said.

“I know you’ll find another job,” said Timothy.

Sarah had not wanted to talk about that. She hated to draw attention to her circumstances. If he had a particular opportunity he wanted to talk with her about, that was fine—but no general conversations about it. No speculation, no sympathy. He looked down at her—and what was in his eyes? Sympathy. If he kept that up, she would stop talking to him.

Sarah remembered what it was like to have an idea or perception that intrigued her, to see how that connected to many things, to want to do research and to do it, and enjoy learning new things, how that never felt like work, though it was, and then to outline a plan, a script, a budget, to prepare a proposal, to talk to people whom she wanted to work with, or people she thought might be interested in funding a project, and then to actually start filming, the conversations with cast and crew, the refining of ideas, the surge of energy, the movement from location to location, the modification of sets, the retakes, the screening of dailies, the post-screening discussions, the editing, and the final work.

Sarah said, “I think you’re right about the importance of intelligence and spirit. It would be great if people could be persuaded by logic and sense, if logic and sense could form a compelling conviction or reason, but—” and she hesitated, then she said, “it’s intimidation, force, status, that convince.”

“That seems cynical,” said Dr. Whitaker from his office.
Both Timothy and Sarah turned to him, then Timothy looked at Sarah to see what she was going to say. Both men waited.

“Isn’t it true? Am I wrong?” asked Sarah.

“You’re not wrong, but there are exceptions,” said Timothy.

Dr. Whitaker laughed, stood, and walked to his doorway, nearer to them, with Timothy and Sarah watching him. He stopped in his doorway, and said, “Isn’t the rule here, in this school, that intelligence and spirit usually matter; and isn’t it the exception when they do not? Beyond these walls, the chaos and greed and spite might reign but here…?”

Timothy and Sarah looked at each other.

“How long have you been here, Professor?” asked Timothy.

Dr. Whitaker laughed, and then said, “We are human—but our goals, our procedures, our rules are such that intelligence and spirit have pride of place.”

There was silence; and neither Timothy nor Sarah wanted to fill it.

Finally, Dr. Whitaker, said, “I understand you’re in a band.”

“Yeah. Yes. We played last night. It was fun,” said Timothy.

“It was very good,” said Sarah, easily. “Timothy and his friend Bill are good songwriters. The music was very melodious, the lyrics interesting.”

“And loud,” said Dr. Whitaker, smiling.

Timothy looked at Sarah.

“Not too loud,” she said.

“We’re playing again next week Professor,” said Timothy. “I’ll e-mail you the info,” he added. “Maybe, sometime, you’ll stop by. I’ll buy you a drink—and talk with you about Arnold, Pater, Eliot, Frye, and Derrida.”

“What about Ellison and Morrison, and Baker and Gates, Carby and Spillers?” asked the professor.

“Noted,” said Timothy, who looked at his watch. “I should be going. I have a three o’clock—and the last third of a paper to read before then. Nice chatting.”

“See you Tim. Tell Dr. Lehrer I said hello—and that I liked his piece in Contemporary Literatures.”

Timothy asked Sarah, “In tomorrow?”

“No, Friday,” she said.

“Till then,” he said.

“Bye,” she said.

Timothy left them, and Dr. Whitaker watched him go, while Sarah began to resume the work on her desk.

(c) DG