Professor Marcus Helms stops midsentence. Paul is dozing. Liam is doodling. Brianna is gaming. As for the rest, well…
He peeks at his pocket watch and lets the class go early. Chester Beatty IV, his Abyssinian cat, is a better listener and waiting at home.
“5:55 . . . Make a wish. You’re dismissed.”
A diverse line passes his podium with zero eye contact, connected to social media, disconnected socially. Helms reiterates the last point of the lesson by adding an extra syllable and some humor to the famous dictum at Delphi.
“Know thy selfie!”
Nobody is listening. No one laughs.
Bolanle Lodum, always the last to leave, is approaching from the back of the room, saying something to him. Cupping a hand over his better ear, he leans forward.
“What’s that, BoLo?”
Shaking her braided head, she points to a hidden earbud, shrugs her shoulders and keeps moving. The girl with the night black skin and yellow contact lenses is speaking in an African dialect. The professor might have felt foolish if not for the hypnotic music of the beautiful language and her lioness eyes. He wonders if the young business major knows the meaning of her lovely first name. Bolanle: “the one who finds wealth at home” –referring to something much greater than a successful personal website with a unique brand.
Having done his best, Helms turns without guilt to the empty room, comforted by the absence of disinterested faces, remembering better days when meaning meant something. Bending over with a grunt, he retrieves two scraps of paper from the floor and discovers Carrie Casey’s Weltanschauung, penned in large, loopy female script, LIFE SUCKS, and Liam’s latest: a humorous penciled portrait of the professor with an exaggeratedly high forehead and a windsock for a tongue.
St. John’s College, two decades older than his sixty, boasts of the preservation of meaningful antiquity. Facing an endangered green chalkboard, the seasoned teacher erases every smudged left-handed line slowly and neatly, one by one, each in the order that it was written, wondering how he might do better next time, even after all these years. Perhaps every point of his outline might be better retained if written out as a complete sentence.
Reaching the unreachable is no easy task. The holy trinity of classical rhetoric—logos, ethos, and pathos –comes naturally to him but the kairos is missing. The timing is off and there is nothing he can do about it. The requirements of the syllabus, written in Ten Commandment stone, demand that huge chunks of chewy philosophical meat be force-fed to Generation Z—children trapped in adult bodies who haven’t lived long enough to cut the second teeth of their noesis.
Ontology cannot be taught to a cat (even Dr. Seuss knows that, no, not a cat or a self-entitled brat), but Chester Beatty IV will chase the red point of a laser beam across the floor and up a wall. The rhythm and clack and occasional snap of a stick of chalk focuses the injured attention span of any student long enough to read a single line. But a half hour into the class this evening, he clapped two black erasers together, creating a thick cloud of chalk dust over the heads of the braindead, “Blow the dust off your minds, people. Think! Life is more than Twitter or Tik Tok.” Eloquent and passionate about the history of Western Philosophy, Helms longs to see every student’s eyes go dark with passion, their tails swishing like Chess when he’s stirred up, someone, anyone, running up and flipping off the wall in philosophical awe.
Because, because, because . . . questions (especially the biggies) often reveal more than answers ever do.
Why does he care so much about this classroom full of zombies (now there’s a mystery!). Furthermore, why should…
“Hey! Whaddaya know, mistletoe?”
Mary Bianchi—charismatic, energetic, Old School Italian, adjunct professor of English literature, three years single after the heart-wrenching death of her loving husband to ALS—wanders into his classroom every Friday evening. Tonight’s rhymed greeting reminds him of the recent faculty Christmas party he was forced to attend.
The blushing philosopher responds with the Socratic paradox, “I know that I know nothing.”
The smiling literature prof responds with Amory Blaine, “I know myself . . . but that is all.”
His chalkboard now a blank face, Helms turns to the beautiful woman. “What I do know, Mary, is that you’re no saint.”
A week after Thanksgiving, she surprised him with a kiss under the mistletoe hanging in the only exit of the Great Hall in front of everyone. For the first time in his pipe smoke existence, he knew what it meant to be kissed, really kissed— without his consent —though, admittedly, with a gin-soaked surrender.
“Homemade spaghettis tomorrow at my place. The chicken will have simmered all day in the gravy until it slides off the bone. Fresh baked garlic bread. A garden salad. Cabernet Sauvignon. My very own blueberry patch cake, coffee, and G.K. Chesterton for dessert.”
“Great! I’ll see you at five-thirty. Don’t be late.”
The chicken in red sauce (gravy), the wine, the garlic, the salad, the cake, the coffee—all effective lures —but it was Chesterton who secured the reservation, a philosopher and a theologian and the promise of a double orgasm of the mind.
Mary Bianchi, sexy and seductive at sixty-two, sitting on his desk, smoothing a gray skirt over tennis muscled legs. “One more thing,” she says.
“Lose the tie. Tomorrow’s your birthday. Capeesh?”
A half hour later, Helms is sitting on a bench at McPherson Park, thinking about tomorrow, remembering yesterday, staring at an empty playground and listening to the gentle southern rain as it ticks and trickles down his umbrella. The dome of the umbrella is wide and deep and effective at keeping him dry in the chilly evening damp. Only his eyes are wet. And his feet.
Many years ago, two excited baby sisters patted mud birthday cakes for him. They inserted twigs for candles and selected the best pinecones and smooth stones for gifts. The following day, they flew away. After their departing flight, he rushed back to that very spot—this spot right here —to sit with their sweet little ghosts and hold onto them a bit longer. But the birthday cakes, twigs, pinecones, stones, along with their tiny footprints and fingerprints and scratches in the dirt were all gone. The rain had gully-washed their innocent love away, their hearts and smiley faces wiped clean as his chalkboard.
Tonight, the Alan Parsons Project is looping in his mind. Time keeps flowing like a river…
Helms takes a generous sip of whisky, lights a pipe awkwardly beneath the umbrella, watches as a twig canoes down a storm drain, and quotes Heraclitus in a blue cloud of golden cavendish, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
And yet, he thinks, and yet…
Here I am. Here I sit.