Thursday, January 19, 2012

Road to Edgar (1/3)

I was startled, to say the least—frightened, really.  I heard strange noises coming from the  hotel room next to mine.  What sounded like a body writhing in excruciating pain, an injured animal banging up against the wall, gave me pause.  Whatever it was, and for whatever reason, the slight reverberations on the other side seemed to resonate loudly within the dimly lit caverns of my heart.

At first, only the lamp next to me began to tremble.  I tried to ignore the alarming din and the flickering light, for it was approaching midnight and I was determined to finish grading papers so I could return them to students the next morning.

Then it got worse.  I swear to you I could hear a man groaning, faintly but no less horrifically.  It was as if this person were already dead and he did not yet know it, or maybe his mind was still cognizant of his entrails being ripped out in the final moments of agonizing torture.  I turned up the TV in the hope that a news report about the nation’s economic woes or the primary election results would root me in the mundane and banish these morbid thoughts from my mind.  I enjoy quietude and privacy, especially in the calm hours of the night, but I had the uneasy feeling of being watched, that someone was breathing down my neck, and I couldn't shake it.  Fortunately, the banging stopped after a while and I could continue my work without interruption.

I’ve taught almost fifteen years now as an adjunct professor of American literature and English composition for Dupin College.  I’m an itinerant academic, if you will, roaming from one satellite campus to another throughout the northern half of the state.  I taught a four-hour course on the nineteenth-century novel this morning and drove across Trunk Highway 29 for my next class tomorrow.  I’m staying at a non-brand hotel for the night, one I've never checked into before, for I liked its remote location off the highway.

I’m a simple man, highly intelligent for my own good, but simple in my needs, someone who jealously guards his private time.  I have little use for organized religion, yet someone once accurately described me as monastic.  That's fair.  I live a rather abstemious life, and I’ve never married.

You might be wondering how I got into this profession, for it certainly doesn’t pay handsomely.  My brother makes nearly twice as much as I, and he never went to college.  You see, I love to read books.  Pure and simple.  My expertise is gothic literature of the Romantic era, but my interests range widely, from haiku of the Edo period to dystopian sci-fi novels of the 20th century.  I'm still working on a book of poems that I hope to publish with a university press.

I despise worthless students who don't know how to read or write, but every profession has its downside.  Grading mediocre papers is unfortunately part of the job description.  Most of my students, I've found over the years, have little appreciation for the literary arts and absolutely no understanding of passion.   I try to bridge the chasm that separates them from me in the classroom, for passion for art, not to mention a hunger for knowledge, is the force within that propels me forward.

And why do I travel about?  I admit there’s a story here.  I used to teach on the main campus of Dupin, had a nice office with a window, and students flocked to my classes—until about four years ago.  That’s when a student falsely accused me of harassment and filed a complaint with the administration.  The hateful young man alleged that I had ridiculed him in front of the class for his rural upbringing.  People are so sensitive nowadays.  It's as if they're looking for an insult, as if they're a ready-made victim awaiting even the slightest pretense, any pretext, for offense.  This student, I can assure you, was merely getting back at me for the generous “D” I gave him, even though the lout really had earned an “F”!  I had never seen such ingratitude and idiocy.  Moreover, the young man, clearly a peasant's son, had the nerve not only to charge me with derogatory statements about him in class; he even alluded to sexual inappropriateness, vaguely enough for anyone investigating to realize that he was lying.  I don't have a gay bone in my body.

Though the ethics board saw the light and eventually ruled in my favor, I confess that I still harbor bitterness toward some of the faculty members who looked at me askance throughout this terrible ordeal and who continued to treat me like a pariah long after my vindication.  The accusations and the initial investigation  of the board tarnished my reputation beyond repair.  The facts did not seem to matter.  I felt humiliated and still cannot forgive my persecutors—yes, there's no better way to describe them.  I could point out that they received their degrees at lesser universities than I did, but it really doesn’t matter.  I might mention some of the skeletons in their closets, secrets that I've had to make my business to know should I need them; but such damaging disclosure could appear petty on my part.

I considered leaving Dupin to teach elsewhere, a more prestigious university that befits my credentials and intellect, and preferably somewhere with a milder climate.  The problem is that I had invested too much in the institution, in terms of benefits and time.  Despite the cruelties I've had to bear at Dupin, and notwithstanding my reduced role as a faculty member, I found it difficult to leave.  The unknown frightens me.  I've read plenty of adventure stories, but I'm not adventurous, certainly not when it comes to my livelihood.  Besides, I couldn't land a comparable position anywhere, though I had sent a letter of interest and supporting documents to over thirty universities and colleges.  So I've learned to take things in stride and teach primarily—no, exclusively these days—for the college's adult education program, and this adjunct position has me driving all over the state.  Coffeehouses and my Camry serve as a de facto office and more often than not a place to sleep!

Still a bit distraught and worried that the pounding would resume, I stepped out for a bite at a nearby diner.  Perhaps I just needed to get some nourishment and clear my head.  Perhaps the nippy air outside and a cup of decaffeinated joe would restore some clarity of mind.  On my way through the lobby I was about to bring the disturbing sounds in Room 116 to the attention of the hotel clerk, until my resolve weakened when I saw at the desk the same haughty woman with whom I dealt a few hours prior.

When I checked in, I requested a room at the end of the hall, far removed from the pool area so I could get a good night's rest.  I didn't want to hear obnoxious teenagers splashing about or snot-nosed children running back and forth down the hall all night.  I have a tough enough time falling asleep without such disturbances.  The young woman at the front desk, sporting a nasty nose ring and a nastier attitude, dismissed my concerns with a frown, telling me not to let such things bother me.  Can you believe the audacity?  I had also asked if she happened to have a Band-Aid, as I had cut my finger earlier and could find only a piece of tape in the car to bandage it.  She gave me one, but not before gratuitously informing me I could have picked some up at the drugstore near the highway exit—as if I didn’t know that!  I grabbed the key card hastily from her hand and stormed off in a huff to show my disdain for her, but I could hear the bitch seamlessly resuming her cell phone conversation with her boyfriend;  I was merely an annoying interruption.

At the diner I ordered an omelet, hash browns, and orange juice, but I just stared at the plate of food.  I simply had no appetite.  I even waved off an offer of coffee, no small feat for a caffeine fiend.  I knew I was in for another night of sleeplessness.  Why make it worse?

The diner was almost empty, just a couple in the next booth—the picture postcard of loneliness and alienation, much like Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks.  The waitress’ name was Rose, and she wouldn’t let me forget it.  She was a bit flirtatious, which I found strange since she didn't know me from Adam.  How can she feel so comfortable around me?  I could be a rapist or murderer for all she knew, waiting in the shadows outside until she got off work.  Yes, I realized that her demeanor was more affectation than earnestness, just an effort to get a good tip.  Indeed, I rewarded her efforts nicely, perhaps less for her service than for the fact that she provided a welcome contrast to the hotel clerk.  Unfortunately, I’ve never had much luck with women: they don’t understand me and I don’t understand them.

I returned to the hotel an hour after I had left it, 10:34 pm to be exact, only to witness even stranger occurrences.  Once I entered my room, I could see my own breath, as if I were outside in the snow, but the room temperature was 70.  Perplexed and scared, I kept breathing heavily and simultaneously turning up the thermostat, thinking if not hoping I wouldn't see my breath.  I opened the door and walked down the hall, blowing frantically into the air.  Only when I reentered the room did I stop seeing my breath.  I'm not one given to flights of fancy, nor am I delusional; yet I have no scientific explanation for this phenomenon.

About ten minutes later, I heard a voice, or what I construed to be a voice, whispering in my ear when I was in the shower, as if someone were right up on my neck.  Was I imagining this voice?  What was it telling me?  Was I going mad?  The mind can play tricks when you’re alone in a hotel room and you’ve had a hectic day.  I tried to calm myself with such reasoning.

If that weren't enough, I begin to smell what I can only describe as burnt flesh.  I checked the dresser drawers, the coffee machine, the iron and ironing board—you name it.  I even walked through the hallway in search of the source of this foul smell.  Nothing.  Between the knocking on the wall, the voices, and the scent of death, I knew this would be another sleepless night.

I have a secret to tell you, and I only share it because it has relevance to my story, or at least I think it has relevance.  I keep a bottle of Chopin vodka in my car trunk.  I’m not an alcoholic, mind you, but I've found that a little fermented medicine does the trick in relaxing me after a grueling day of teaching and driving.  I need a little something to help me with dreadful insomnia. 

If you were a psychoanalyst with some knowledge of my family history, you might be tempted to say that my drinking of alcohol, however rare and measured, is either an act of defiance deep down or a textbook example of victim-turned-abuser.  My father drank heavily, mostly cheap whiskey, sometimes vodka, and invariably under the influence he beat and whipped my mother, brother, and me.  The household was intoxicated with violence, it would seem, for my mother severely boxed my ears even long after my father's death to remind and warn me, ironically, of the awful consequences of alcoholism (namely, becoming an abusive and violent person) should I ever decide to take up the bottle.  If our father's abuse wasn't enough, my poor brother Jared went through hell and back.  One autumn day a strange man claiming to be a friend of the family lured him to his van, tortured him, and left him for dead in the Copperhead River only two miles from our home.  Fortunately, police search teams found him before it was too late, but Jared has had to live with this scar of degradation and violation all his life.

Why am I mentioning my bottle of vodka?  Usually when I take a swig of the stuff I get to a happy place of oblivion and fall asleep with the TV on.  This time, however, the drinking did not ease my mind and lull me to sleep; rather, it brought me back to the events that had transpired earlier today.  Things indistinct only an hour ago are starting to come into focus.  I don't know why this lucid remembrance of the day's events is hitting me like a brick, but I'll put aside these papers for now and record for you my thoughts.