10:38AM Monday, March 7, 1983
“I feel like…”
Kane stared out the window and allowed the more or less gentle hum of student opinions to recede into the background. Beyond the classroom, the parka-clad student body bucked the wind. Kane knew what it was like in the cold. He knew how much it cost him to remain where he was, firmly rooted to the seat he warmed. His position was comfortable, and he felt the gravitational pull created by society’s momentum. There was no welcoming curiosity, no illuminating glow of an intellectual atmosphere. He wasn’t drawn to the warm bodies that sat in neat rows, but he wasn’t stranded in the cold, either. He had a place and a course to chart as outlined by the syllabus. Outside, an adjunct slipped and fell on a patch of ice. Kane looked away, returning his attention to the class.
“That’s an excellent point,” Professor Williams said to whomever had spoken. “I suppose you do reach the same point by the high road or the low, but if we take a closer look at this passage…”
Williams never directly corrected her students, no matter how foolish their ideas. She always drew the attention back to the text and used the text as a guide. On the one hand, how could you correct someone’s opinion? On the other, validation drove student investment. If students felt the class was about them, they’d participate more readily and prepare more thoroughly, or so the theory went. Kane found the same page.
Williams was a tall, rail thin woman with a long face, long fingers, and black hair streaked with grey. Kane figured she was in her mid-forties, and he knew she’d been a hippie. Everyone knew she’d been a hippie because she talked about it all the time. She spoke of love and peace and how those ideals had almost been realized, how, if it hadn’t been for the actions of a few, they would’ve changed the world. Often, she lamented the drugs and the self-interest, but they were part of the movement, part of the era, the zeitgeist. Free love and consciousness expansion were necessary paths to discovering free will, true liberty, the wellsprings of peace, love, and understanding. Kane wondered if she knew, deep down, how naïve her ideals had been.
As far as Kane was concerned, people would never all get along because at some point, sooner rather than later, someone’s perspective would differ from someone else’s, and the chasm of that difference would be beyond crossing. Person one would argue, of course, that person two just needed to understand. Why couldn’t person two see things as they truly were? Person two would think the same, or some version of the same. Either way, Kane doubted college courses built any bridges, especially when people discussed their opinions and had their perspectives validated or passively ignored, depending on their relationship to the Professor’s point of view. Such a course only implicitly criticized the divide created by being divisive.
The discussion slouched toward the end of the hour. Professor Williams tugged the class toward meaning, and Kane ticked off on one hand the number of students who showed, through the specificity of their comments, that they’d attempted the assigned reading.
“Kane Kulpa,” Williams said. “What do you think?”
Kane cleared his throat. “I agree.”
“Tell us more.”
Kane glanced at the clock. He’d almost made it.
“I think a lot of people have made a lot of interesting comments.”
Williams waited, and some of the students began to squirm.
Kane knew she wouldn’t move on. Kane could outlast the class but not her. In a few seconds, a student would start talking to fill the void, one of the students who hated tension of any kind, whose self-worth depended on the four-point grading system. Kane could wait for silence to devalue the premise of class discussion, and he’d be justifiably ostracized, or he could speak his mind.
“I don’t think the play is about the taboo of incest, and I don’t think it’s about fate.”
“It’s never confirmed in the play who is related to whom. We’re expected to know but never explicitly shown. The play’s about identity. Sophocles didn’t dramatize a story everyone knew. He rewrote the story to develop an idea within the story: the inability to know our true identity. The riddle of the sphinx supports this. If we pass through life in the conventional way, we’ll embody our humanity, but most of us don’t recognize our humanity. Most couldn’t answer the riddle.”
“Are you saying we all share the fate of Oedipus?”
“No. I’m saying we can all relate to the fact that we can’t see ourselves. We don’t know ourselves, at least not until we’re forced to, and nobody would fault a man for carving out his own eyes after facing the image he presents. We want to believe we stand for something beyond ourselves, but the truth is that we don’t know who or how we are because we can’t see beyond our own perspective.”
Professor Williams watched Kane for a moment before turning her head to look at the clock above the door. “I think that’ll do for today. I’ll see you all tomorrow morning, and we’ll discuss the next fifty pages.”
Kane joined the flow of students out of the room and avoided looking at Williams. He wondered why she’d put him on the spot. He’d never raised his hand in class, never spoken directly to Professor Williams, and she’d only ever called on him once before. He hated that he’d gotten the last word. He’d done well on the first exam and the weekly assignments, and he didn’t want to mess up a good grade. Why did she know his name?
Kane adjusted his backpack and zipped his hoodie and his black, leather car coat before stepping outside and facing the biting wind. March in Central City remained cold and cloudy, and the wind picked up off the lake. More than a few days brought sleet, and an occasional snow storm would turn brown and black and wouldn’t fully melt until April, which would finally provide a steady diet of sunny afternoons.
Kane lit a cigarette and walked swiftly, his head down. He weaved between the buildings and made his way across campus to the Student Union. He paused next to a garbage can, took two final drags on his cigarette, brushed the cherry off the crusted rim, and tossed the butt among the discarded cups, paper, plastic, and tin.
Inside the Student Union, Kane crossed the dining area, passed the elevators, and used the stairwell near the bookstore. He climbed to the third floor, a floor of adjunct offices, most of which remained empty most of the time. Kane entered the men’s room, nodded to a man with long chestnut hair, stone-washed jeans, and a patched jean jacket, and checked both of the stalls.
“We’re alone,” The man in the Canadian tuxedo said. “I checked them already.”
Kane smiled, nodded, grabbed the garbage can, and slid it in front of the door. Then he motioned the guy to step over so they’d be behind the door if someone tried to force it open.
The man rolled his eyes, stepped into the space between the door and the sinks, and took a plastic bag out of the inside pocket of his jacket. “This is what you came for. Let’s get this over with. I don’t like being on campus, man. This whole place is a head trip.”
“Tell me about it.” Kane took the plastic bag from the guy, held it by the edges, and shook it. He counted five pieces of paper, each three inches by three inches and with a Chinese character drawn on the front. Kane asked, “What does the character mean?”
“Truth. That’s what I was told, anyway. I can’t read Chinese.”
“You want fifty per sheet? That’s a little steep.”
“Hey, man. Don’t pull this shit on me now. I had to take two buses to get here. You want a discount, you come down to Commerce City. We’ll get a couple of beers and shoot some pool. Besides, you’re buying truth here, man. Take three hits of that, and you’ll know more about yourself than any of these professors can teach you. How much does tuition cost in a place like this? You sell that for a buck a hit, and you’ll double your money. And that’s giving it away. These kids will pay three times that.”
Kane chuckled and took a roll out of the inside pocket of his leather coat. He counted out two fifties, seven twenties, and a ten, and handed them to the man. The man smiled, stuffed the cash inside his jean jacket, nodded to Kane, moved the garbage can, and disappeared into the corridor. Kane walked in the opposite direction, to the stairwell on the far side of the building.
At the bottom of the stairs, Kane opened the door and stepped into the vestibule adjacent to the dining area. He turned to walk outside and saw four uniformed police officers running toward the door. Kane froze. He considered running back up the stairs. He turned to see if he could run into the Student Union. He turned back toward the outer doors, and the officers were there, pulling the door open. A gust of frigid air struck Kane in the face.
The officers pushed past him, pulled open the interior doors, and ran into the dining room. Students stepped aside to let them pass.
Kane couldn’t help himself. He followed the officers, and when he rounded the corner to the dining area, he saw them pushing into a crowd and ordering people to step back.
Kane merged with the people, always keeping a couple between himself and the law, and he saw a body in the vacuum at the center of the crowd. One of the officers knelt next to the old woman. He rolled her onto her back. Her eyes were closed. She looked peaceful, her body still, a slight curve upward at the corners of her mouth.
One of the officers spoke into a handheld radio. Another officer said, “Does anyone know this woman?”
“Her name’s Harriet. Harriet Baumgart,” Kane said.
The officer stepped forward, and people stepped aside until Kane and the officer stood a foot apart.
“How do you know her?”
“She was in my German class.”
“Before she died, officer.”
Image by Josh Hild courtesy of Unsplash.