“It’s like being in a god-forsaken third-world country where nothing works.”
Well, no, Emile silently disagreed, it was not. Having travelled through so-called third world countries, he could lecture his colleague on the differences between a print room in a suburban Montreal college where one of three copying machines was out of service, and a village in Chad where the well had run dry. The line of impatient teachers desperate to use the two copiers in working order stretched out the door. Contractually obligated to begin their duties two weeks ago, many teachers had waited until the last possible moment, usually the first day of actual classes, to make copies of whatever they needed. He had in fact already spent three days in his office and one morning in the print room to complete all his preparatory work. Now he stood in front of a floor-to-ceiling shelf of copying paper in red packages and simply wanted to copy two pages, two pages only, from an Orwell essay, then print it forty times.
Papers and books clutched to their chests, several teachers eyed the state-of-the-art copying machines, each one the size of a hippo standing against a wall and not yawning. Behind him grumbled Beth who had made the comparison with a third world. Refusing to use the college’s information website and email system, she stamped her booted feet when confronted with technological failure. Emile often wondered how a philosopher of brilliant mind, according to her friends, could become so irritated over minor malfunctions. A bit of stoicism did everyone some good, he would have thought.
Stoicism supported him through various travails and inconvenience in “third-world” countries, a term he disliked because of its western ethnocentric bias. No, the really hard thing was returning to the classroom when he preferred steam-boating along the Orinoco or trekking in Cappadocia looking for caves. On some mornings he’d much rather sit in front of his computer and write stories about his travels and all the confrontations and mishaps therein which he hoped would soon form a publishable collection. Beth had asked him out of politeness how his summer was, but did not pay attention to his answer.
Regardless of the season, she wore heavy rubber, synthetic fur-lined boots designed to withstand intense cold and slosh through shallow icy waters. City workers wore similar boots in the winter when they tried to mend yet another broken water main flooding the streets. Early this morning he had received a phone call from his landlord who lived on the first floor of the three storey, east Montreal row house with a wobbling, twisting iron staircase. In hysterical French, he screamed that water had backed up into the basement, the street had become a canal, maudit, everyone should vacate the premises, the hydro must be shut off.
His possessions on the third floor because, however unpleasant the breakage, the waters would not rise above the knees, Emile sympathized, but chose not to cancel his classes. Water just seeping under the garage door behind the building, the car was unaffected and he was able to drive an alternate route to the college. Helpless before a decrepit and cracking subterranean infrastructure, what on earth could he have done? It wasn’t Noah’s flood, after all, he had responded to Gaetan, who failed to be consoled by a biblical allusion. Surely, when he returned home this evening, the problem would have been solved.
Despite being a warm September day, Beth wore a thick scarf wound like a python around her neck, and a heavy military jacket with pens sticking out of the pockets. Well, philosophers often tended towards eccentricity and indifference to appropriate dress. She also wore jeans, but most teachers, himself included, wore jeans like their students. His jeans, however casual in appearance, had been selected with attention to style and fit.
“I don’t have all the time in the world.”
His turn next at the machine, Emile toyed with the idea of delaying to exacerbate Beth’s mood. She was approaching retirement age, probably had exceeded it, staying on out of a sense of indispensability. Emile knew that students warned their friends not to take her classes because she couldn’t abide a difference of opinion, although she did have her admirers, especially among teachers who had also participated in the American protests of the sixties. The more liberated they had once been in their homeland before voluntary exile, the more intransigent they now had become in the cages of their egos as superannuation stared them in the face like a monkey in a zoo.
Emile wanted his students to think independently and did not retaliate if they did so. He understood, as he said more than once in various meetings, “where they were coming from.” He only returned to teaching because he loved the young burgeoning mind. He was himself was not much older than they. His older sister Julie, now the chairperson of the English department, had warned him against giving too much of himself. An occupational hazard, this falling in love with one’s job.
Of course, he had been hired solely on merit. Degrees from two universities, a six-week summer course in Oxford, world traveler, especially to obscure places like Bulgarian farms or Brazilian villages where the word tourist could not possibly describe his presence, fluently tri-lingual, pleasant personality with a genuine interest in how and what his students learned, as he persuaded the five-member hiring committee four years ago, how could they not offer him a full-time contract?
True, since a third of the department was related somehow to a second third, the specter of nepotism had haunted the outskirts of his mind, but he was not frightened by it, given his credentials. Julie had absented herself from the hiring committee during his interviews. Popular among the students, cooperative in committees, he did his job well and had earned it.
“Emile, would you mind if I went ahead? I have a class at 8:30.”
“Ordinarily, I wouldn’t mind at all, Beth, but I also have a class at 8:30.”
“I guess we should have come in last week, but there’s so frigging much to do, there’s not enough time.”
“Don’t I know it?”
How convincing he was!
“Why doesn’t the administration maintain college equipment or buy enough for our needs? Shit, I can’t wait any longer.”
She stomped out, carrying exasperation and righteousness with her. His cell phone vibrated in a pocket. He took it out and recognized his landlord’s number. Answering in French, Emile learned that a small fire had erupted in the basement under the first floor kitchen, which of course created more problems. Not to worry, it was under control. No damage at all to the third floor, Emile’s apartment, but the hydro would remain disconnected for a while, at least until the evening, and the water had not been cleared away from the street, making driving difficult.
Well, he could run bench press in his gym instead of sitting in the dark at home, waiting for the restoration of electricity. Liking to keep fit and firm, he worked out several hours a week, developing biceps displayed to advantage by short sleeve shirts or form-fitting, microfiber tops. Academics needn’t be flabby: mens sana in corpore sano had always been an ideal philosophy by which to live. It did no harm in the classroom either: prominent biceps gained the respect of recalcitrant jocks, the attention of restless girls, and the compliance of the indifferent and sullen.
To be sure, there was always that erotic undertow in class, the secretive gaze, the embarrassed glance, the tendency for edging closer than necessary during office discussions over poorly constructed essays. Given their youth and frantic hormones, Emile was always aware of the body’s urgencies and inadequately suppressed desires. Sometimes he caught himself involuntarily flexing or posing while drawing attention to metaphor and narrative point of view. He respected the invisible line, however, the ethical barriers which he himself would never cross or dismantle.
Having traveled through Spain--not as an ordinary tourist because he had arranged all his own accommodations and transportation, visited out of the way places and avoided crowds in the Prado or the Alhambra during the height of the tourist season--he admired Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, two pages from which he was copying as an introduction to prose clear as a window pane. Obsessive text-messaging and computer games had damaged their literacy skills and deconstructed their orthography and grammatical logic. Pushing four and zero to create his desired number of copies, then raising his arms behind his head and clasping his hands, he tightened his biceps and arched his back, a stress-reducing gesture, and noticed Martin at the next machine. Emile smiled, then released his pose.
“Hi, there, Martin. Last minute copying as well?”
“No, just several memos I need to send around. I don’t have a class today, thank God. My email’s not functioning. Stupid system. Nothing ever works around here. Whatever happened to mimeograph machines? Are you having trouble with yours?”
“I haven’t logged on to mine yet, but I’ll check and let you know.”
“Oh, that won’t be necessary. Believe me, it doesn’t work.”
None of Martin’s memos were needful, usually unnecessary information about an obscure art exhibit down a side-street in Montreal, or a foreign-language film of earth-shattering significance. He could arrange to take classes at a discount. God help him from aging teachers like Martin who had trouble walking on his purple, swollen ankles. One of the original teachers in the department, Martin shuffled down the corridor, intellectually worn out and imbued with that cynicism and egoism older teachers often developed over the years, soliloquizing like some kind of troll muttering beneath a Scandinavian bridge.
His phone hummed again. Was Gaetan going to harass him all day about broken water mains and power outages?
Another teacher spoke out loud about personal phone calls in the print room when people were trying to get their work done. For a moment Emile wanted to turn around and remind her of the two weeks before classes available for precisely that purpose: get your fucking work done before the last minute. Like, you’ve never made personal calls on college time? An educational institution, however, was no place to show a fiery temper as it violated the basic premise of civilized discourse, rational debate, and scholarly pursuits.
“Mais, j’ne peux pas partir.” How could he leave before meeting his first class of the semester? Impossible. Emile gave him permission to use the master key and enter his apartment, mais oui! He could ask Martin to substitute and distribute the Orwell pages. Hell, he hadn’t expected this. To ask Martin on the spot, and if the man agreed, well, that implied an undesirable obligation, either to return the favor and he really didn’t want to step into Martin’s disorganized classes of benumbed students. He flipped open his phone and called Julie who could perhaps arrange something at the last minute for him.
“I’m glad I got you, Julie. Listen, something terrible has happened at my place, yeah, you know the water main burst this morning and the street’s flooded, Gaetan just called and I really need to get back home… can you find someone to take my 10:30 class --- only for a half hour or so to distribute the course outlines and some material I’ve just copied? Great. I’ll leave these copies on my desk next to the folder of course outlines. Just tell them to read the pages for next class, they’ll have to do some writing about them for me then. It’s in Laurier Hall, room 204. Okay? Great. Thanks.”
“Water main burst on your street? Not even winter yet and already it begins. What else is new in this city? Reminds me when the pipes exploded under my house . . . .”
“Sorry, Martin, I’ve really got to go.”
Several teachers surged forward when Emile deserted the copier. He pushed his way through the corridors thick with students. Brushing aside greetings of colleagues with panicky apologies, Emile retrieved his briefcase, dropped the copies on his desk and fled the premises. Slowing down slightly, he drove through a Stop sign like most Montreal drivers, then accelerated on the other side of the intersection, his car clunking down and jolting up with a cracking sound.
No chance he’d get to the gym this evening, or go out with Héloise of the lustrous auburn hair whom he had taught in his very first year at the college but who had safely graduated and now attended university majoring in communications. They had flirted that one semester over Hemingway’s short stories. When she spent more time than necessary in his office, he blushed to remember hiding his erection under his desk and elaborately averting his eyes from her cleavage. He tried to persuade himself it was love, but in the end he went with lust. After her graduation, they exchanged emails to keep the interest alive.
Narrowly clipping the front end of a car which he passed, Emile wondered about his computer at home and the file of stories he had been writing for the past five years about his experiences in Sikkim or Lesotho or Papua. He had saved everything on a memory stick, but that remained in his desk drawer. Was it susceptible to heat or smoke damage, assuming they put the fire out in time?
Gaetan said the firefighters had already arrived at the scene when he called. By the time he reached his street, the flood water had drained away although now it was blocked by coils of fire hose and barriers to keep traffic and gawkers at a distance. The fire had been contained in Emile’s building where flames now noisily licked up the exterior to reach the roof. Smoke and stench settled among the crowd on the windless day. Some furniture and personal possessions had been saved, Emile noticed, judging from the pile of goods and a few chairs on the sidewalk opposite his flat. And there he saw his computer’s monitor, its screen wet, precariously poised on a wicker laundry basket threatening to topple on to his espresso machine.
Where was the hard drive which stood on the floor under the desk? Maybe Gaetan didn’t realize that the hard drive was more important than the monitor. He couldn’t see his landlord. Surrounded by the coughing curious, Emile knelt by a bulky black case as if to pray, snapped open the lid and tossed about the clothes arbitrarily removed from a dresser drawer: two silky tailored-to-fit shirts, a new jock strap still in its package, tank tops and an Italian cotton sweater, all reeking of smoke like a musky eau de cologne, file folders and several pairs of micro-fiber briefs. Yelling for his landlord over the swishing of hoses and blasting of water against fire, Emile searched for his little green memory stick amongst all that easy-to-launder underwear.
© Kenneth Radu