Desperate to travel the world and escape his Midwestern malaise, an underwhelmed man goes to classes each weekend to become certified to teach English in Korea. He dislikes his classmates but not as much as he dislikes the college campus. It's old, antique, and represents everything he hates about the United States' fetish for tradition. But why does he find himself wandering aimlessly into the basement during lunch breaks, and why is his teacher so nervous about students going off by themselves?
A G O O D , O L D P L A C E
THE rain had started early, before the sun had begun to warm the sky, and was falling in dull sheets well into midday. The weather was uncharacteristic of Indianapolis during the peak of May, but would later prove very characteristic of a summer that would break records for its low temperatures and constant storms. The College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences was an atypical location for a course in teaching English abroad, and from the outset the situation reeked of abnormality to the bored man who staked out his seat in the left corner of the square semi-circle made up of three long folding tables. The bored man was tall and thin, a 24 year old graduate student whose khaki shorts and sandals bespoke his taste for a more coastal climate. His unkempt, curly black hair dripped in loose strands around his neck and ears, and a wiry beard girded his jaw, almost but not quite connecting on his upper lip. He had driven up from Richmond, paid $1,200 for tuition, and was spending his nights at the Indianapolis Hostel. Four weekends – nine to five, Saturday and Sunday – and he would be certified by the Oxford Seminars to leave Indiana and spend two – or three or five or ten – years in some shiny East Asian city in Japan or China or hopefully Korea, far away from the orange brick Italianates and rectangular storefronts of rural Indiana. But so far the process had been torturous. Two hours into the seminar he began to dream of its conclusion while the Hoosier sky darkened the Hoosier landscape and drenched the window panes with a constant supply of water.
He was disappointed and a little disgusted by the group that had formed around him after he had been the first to arrive in the darkened classroom at 8:45. There was Andy, a 35-ish hippie with the hair and beard of the Sallman Jesus – a vapid metal head who joked through the exercises, was constantly distracted, and seemed never to have aged past fifteen. And then there was Bonnie, a 60-ish police chaplain whose bulbous body and buldging head resembled a 1950s baby doll. Fierce, arrogant, and overcompensating for her lack of authority as a student, she scolded her classmates, constantly drew awkward attention to her roles as a pastor and a chaplain, and bullied the shier students for not knowing enough about their country’s kitschy history: who Liberace was for instance, an American icon that all patriotic millennials should be able to converse about. There were half a dozen meek female college graduates of average or less-than average looks, most with a modicum of foreign travel experience (“My family went to Rome for a week”; “My youth group spent a weekend in Mexico”; “I was on a safari last year and think that Africa’s really fun”), and there was Chen – a quiet Vietnamese girl who spent her breaks with a boyfriend who slept in the hallway during class – and Lakshmi – a Pakistani-American single mother who had no plans for the future other than to “move someplace and teach kids.”
Worst of all was Bob. Bob was older than Bonnie (who apparently had developed a crush on him), and could barely hear or think straight. He was the bored man’s assigned partner, much to the younger man’s misery. At first Bob was cute: a tottering old fart who had never married and wanted to see the world, particularly “Pwerta Rica,” “Hondurruz,” or his old Army stomping ground in “Koh-ree-yuh.” Bob was small and round with a buzzcut and a leering, unsettling grin, two glassy eyes that were magnified into watery blurs by his prescription lenses, and a sonorous-but-schmaltzy voice marked by a yokel accent from Southern Indiana or Northern Kentucky, the bored man couldn’t remember where. He had all the charisma and personality of a retiree who stumbles through announcing a tee-ball game or a BINGO contest at a decrepit VFW. Only Erin was a break from the mediocrity. She was short but athletic, spry, and witty, with brown-gold skin the same color as her sun-stained hair, and green eyes that gleamed with engagement when someone else was speaking. The bored man liked when she came into the classroom with her hair pulled loosely into a ponytail or knotted into a shiny bun, effortlessly wearing hoodies and track shorts that heightened rather than diminished her figure. She was an Olympic weight trainer even though she – like the half a dozen meek girls with their braces, pimples, and grey complexions – was only 22. Erin was pretty but even she was relatively uninspiring, not being sure whether she would travel abroad or teach English to immigrants. In any case, she sat at the tip of the table across from the bored man, and they rarely interacted. The course was helmed by Kenneth, a soft-spoken world traveler who had apparently settled for living in Indianapolis – a fact which discredited him severely to the bored man who resented anyone who didn’t churn with disgust at the thought of living in a landlocked state past the age of 25. But Kenneth was experienced and a good teacher, so after time the bored man warmed to his style. But nothing could warm the weather on that first day.
The class was held in an antique classroom on the second story of the aforesaid College of Pharmacy, etc. – an old brick building lousy (so the bored man thought) with age – on the campus of one of Indianapolis’ oldest university campuses. The surrounding buildings inspired little more confidence. Some dated to the 1960s, but most reeked of the Edwardian Arts and Crafts style – a combination of medieval and Gothic architecture, with baroque details, heavy black timbers, and ornate geometric flourishes carved into stone set in time-darkened brick and limestone. The bored man resented its age and quietly envisioned wrecking balls and bulldozers crawling over the campus like worms on a corpse, executing the necessary job of worms on a corpse by tearing down that which is spent and useless. Chrome was needed here, he thought. Vast panes of tempered glass, and – if brick there must be – fresh, red bricks outlined in clean, white mortar. He loathed what Erin – in a moment of disappointing sentiment – had referred to as the “graceful ageing” of this outdated monument to men and ideas who had died long ago.
The walls of the College did nothing to help: they were lined with massive group portraits of the graduating classes of decades and centuries past. The “College of Pharmacy Class of 1895, Anno Domini” was browned by time, and stared dully out at him with the eyes of 149 dead men, men wearing sober, depressing faces, whose fanciful facial hair, black frocks, and white cravats reminded him more of tedious melodramas and demented great-grandmothers than the intended sense of legacy. And they marched on: 1905, 1917, 1922, 1936, 1944, 1965, 1978, 1989, 2003. But he couldn’t help feel that the newer, crisper, colored group photos were somehow contaminated – made illegitimate – as if the somber men of 1895 were orchestrating them still. He sensed a connection between the class of 2015 and the 120 year old photograph which was – to use his exact thought – unnatural and out of place, somehow incorrect and wrong, like a great, dead arm was reaching through decades and ensuring the continuance of outmoded traditions. Why have these photos at all? Why not publish them online? He passed them on his march to the bathroom on his break, and it was almost as if he were slipping through the wormhole that would deposit him in a foregone time: faces changed, dulled, faded in color, then lost color altogether, until he was passing under the gaze – not of cheerful girls in pink and yellow blouses with modern haircuts and laughing eyes – but of the sour, bearded men who still seemed to hold a conscious domain over the young college students who unknowingly accepted their guardianship and entered their paternal dominion.
The first break of the first day took place at 10:30. The bored man was the first to escape the classroom, swiftly but discreetly hopping from his chair, slipping around the table, and shuffling into the hallway. He wanted to escape his company, so he opted to float down to the first floor bathroom. No one else followed, and he was able to relieve himself in solitude, away from scatter-brained Andy, bumbling Bob, and preachy Bonnie. Even the bathroom disturbed his sensibilities, however, with its walls lined in octogenarian subway tiles and its pre-war wooden stalls painted in black enamel and stenciled with gold paint. Everything was old, old and misplaced, like a new house filled with antique furniture, or a young man with wrinkled skin and one eye white, glaring and spectral from cataracts. He emptied his bladder and wandered into the hall, up the stairs, and into the classroom. He had been in his chair for three minutes when he looked up and saw the bleeding man. The figure was young, perhaps a year or two younger than him, with cropped hair, blue jeans, and a white crewneck. The t-shirt was, however, slathered in deep maroon stains which were already flaking and hardening into black mats. A sash of deep red ran from his right shoulder to his left elbow, and speckles of brown peppered the material in otherwise dry spots. His face was mangled by a laceration above the eyebrow, with two others – bigger apparently – being muffled by gauze and tape which were already drenched with coffee-colored stains. His cheeks, nose, and eyelids were swollen and black, and his nostrils and teeth were purple with slushy gore. The phantom hovered in the doorway, stumbled into the classroom, and stood in front of Kenneth, who politely walked up to him and shook his hand which was darkened by purple stains which had apparently been vainly scrubbed at with water.
Was he real, then, the shocked man wondered? Kenneth was talking to him, cool as mist, and was pointing and gesturing fluidly as if his joints were oiled and loose. Was there no blood, then? Was it just a trick of the light? The bleeding man nodded to Kenneth, and to the shocked man’s horror, he shuffled into the room, rounded the desks, and sat two chairs away from him. He leaned painfully over the table and winced as he settled into the chair.
“Hhh,” he muttered through clenched teeth. “Ahuz inuh arr ahkdehm ash ighm.” “Hi. I was in a car accident last night.” The concerned man felt his heart slow down as the phantom became flesh. But with that assurance, he became disgusted at yet another awkward classmate. Car accident or no, for God’s sake wash up and get a new shirt! What a gruesome sight. Beck – this was the bleeding man’s name – was allowed to stay in the class because of the circumstance (he had just been released from the hospital, and his jaw was wired shut), and would sit for the rest of the class time lathered in rotting blood. The smell was sweet at first, like wet pennies, but soured as the day passed. The concerned man became annoyed as Beck attracted the attention and sympathy of the girls – Erin in particular – and as his very obvious intelligence and linguistic acumen (in spite of his muffled voice) became tremendously apparent. The Bob leaned over to the annoyed man and grinned stupidly “Boy, if he ain’t clever! I don’t think I’d uh made if here if I’d uh been in a masher like that. Why, when I was in th’ service I seen two cars had a real cruncher out there in Koh-ree-yah. Why the two fellers what were drivin’ were all pulled to chuncks and bits. Couldn’t barely tell that they wuz human. Huh, huh, huh! Well sometimes I ‘spose you just can’t. In the war in Koh-ree-yah I seen quite a lot what yuh’d never ‘spect were human, huh, huh, huh! Burns can do a spell on yuh! You ever been burned, there, pal?” The annoyed man tuned the Bob out and fantasized about the lunch break… then the end of the course… then packing his few necessary possessions into two light suitcases, abandoning the Midwest and flying west to a new, better life in a new, better culture – one where he saw no reminders of the generations which had tried so pathetically to uphold the outdated values of a past era, where no one knew him by the name of his father, his grandfather, his great-great-grandfather.
Kenneth let the class out at one. They had an hour to eat their lunches, and most of the students clustered into groups and headed for the restaurants off campus. The plain girls left together, Chen and Lakshmi and Erin left together. Andy and Beck followed them in Andy’s battered jeep. Bonnie marched off with a militaristic air in the direction of the parking lot, and Bob wandered aimlessly down the hall. The annoyed man scooped up a plastic bag: he had packed his lunch. He was tired of the moldering Pharmacy building and was pleased to see that the rain had let up. With a smile and a sense of glee he wandered into the open air and clipped along the sidewalk towards the picnic area. It is unnecessary to described how he unpacked his lunch on a table under the sky, how he began to eat without noticing the bank of dark vapor slithering in from the northwest, how the rain fell on his lunch while he was engrossed in fantasies of life abroad, and how he rushed to the nearest shelter which was a massive Arts and Crafts academic hall built like a Gothic church. The point is that – clinging to his last two pieces of sushi, and holding a bottle of sparkling water under his armpit – he rushed to the immense oak doors, pried them open, and found himself standing under a titanic ceiling crisscrossed by black, time-worn timbers with long, ill-lit halls extending in two directions, and a tremendous wooden stair case reaching up and down. Its steps were hollowed down into two trails – one ascending, one descending – and the risers were battered by decades of slipping toes, almost as violently as if a ballpeen hammer had been flailing them for hours. The wet man was surprised to find Arthur Something Hall – a name he partially learned on his way out by looking at the medieval script chipped into the stone above the oak doors – was even more aged and redundant than the Pharmacy building. And yet there was something intense about this new edifice, something that shunned ridicule and invited awe. He was no less repulsed by the unnecessary antiquity of the place, but he felt his spite hushed and muffled, like a militant atheist who is comfortable mocking Muslims on television and in malls and shopping centers, but who is stunned to vulnerable silence on walking into the unshaken, lordly halls of the Alhambra, his cultural disgust proven weak and shallow when transplanted from its comfort zone. It was a temple, he felt, to age and time, and he looked sheepishly and longingly at the grey sheets of water that prevented his escape. Sensing a need to sit and close his eyes after such a dreary day, he turned down the hall to the right and almost unconsciously began to explore his foreign environment.
The building seemed entirely deserted. It was summer, and even though the hall was the center of all of the humanities classes, offices, and clubs during the school year, he only saw two office doors ajar, and one light on in a conference room where a white-haired janitor was silently polishing a mocha-colored table with furniture wax. The old man never looked up from his religious devotion to the century-old mahogany, and the outsider walked onward down the hallway. The walls were framed with the same immense timbers – two or three feet square – studded with the grey, battered heads of heavy iron spikes. In between the timbers were spans of thick wainscoting. Wooden carvings – flourishing leaves, intricate scrollwork, geometric designs, and the figures of birds, lions, knights, and peasants – were cut into the wood, with the kind of rustic roughness and obsession with detail that might be expected from a cathedral in Bavaria or Gascony or Bruges. The light emanated from the leaded and stained glass windows and the stripe of fluorescent lights the ribbed the ceiling of each hallway. These lights were on only at the ends of the halls and the central joint were the stairway hosted a landing, lending a pale grey glimmer that barely peeled back the murky shadows which filled each section of hall, intersected only by the blue glow of the few leaded glass windows which appeared at the alcoves formed by the landings.
Silence and loneliness seemed to run down the walls almost physically, as the only sounds he heard were the clap of his footsteps on the marble and limestone halls, and the faint buzz of the lights at the end of each hall. Without thinking about what he was managing, the outsider turned back down the hall, stopped at the landing where a suite of wooden benches lined an alcove which was dominated by an enormous window of stained glass, he turned to mount the age-darkened stairs and ascended to the second story. Here there were no lights, only the icy light which flickered from the windows on the landings. Every door was closed, every room silent. Again he climbed the staircase and entered the third story – the quietest and darkest yet. Only the incessant clatter of water on the panes interrupted the ghastly still. But why did he enjoy it so much? Here he was, surrounded by everything he hated about the United States and the Midwest: a morbid nostalgia, an impractical sentimentality for the past, a servile protectiveness about tradition – and yet he felt somehow drawn to these unpeopled caverns where his personality and ego were tempted to fill and dominate the empty space. But it was no charm that drew him in: even in his drowsy reverie he felt a wrenching hate of this clumsy building, and fantasized about – where did the idea even come from? – buying a lighter and a newspaper and starting a fire in one of the huge trashcans in the bathroom. The timbers would burn for hours and hours before buckling and bringing the stone and bricks down in a shattered black heap. It needed to be removed from society, he thought, but my natural, legal means. It wasn’t his problem anyway, though. In a month he would have a certification from the Oxford Seminars saying that he was licensed to teach English as a second language. A week would probably be all that it would take to get a job teaching stylish, cosmopolitan Korean entrepreneurs how to speak his language. By August he would surely be on a plane to his new culture – one which spurned age and traditions, one which was modern and practical.
When he noticed the form at the end of the hall, his rhapsody was interrupted. It was lumpy and squat like an obese dwarf or a pile of discarded pillows and bedding. The light was so dim that all he could make of it was a shadowy silhouette. He remembered his previous flight of fancy – the bleeding man who was actually a fool named Beck – and he soundlessly turned to walk back down the stairs, wondering why the janitor would have left this pile of bloated trash bags – for so, in the weak silver light they surely seemed to be – out in the unattended hallway. Having the building empty was no excuse to slack on his job. Another feeble retiree who deserved to be canned, he thought. Another old man who is taking advantage of someone’s sentiment and pity. Another old codger who reminded some weak sap of their dead grandpa and finagled his way into a young man’s job, who is now wasting money and time and space. Well, grandpa is dead and can’t come back, he said. And he did say it. In fact, he shook a little and his lungs stung with the sharp inhalation of surprise when he realized he had spoken, for his words thundered in the empty landing and rattled their way down the staircase and into the black basement stories below: We’ll grandpa is dead and can’t come back… Dead and can’t come back… Can’t come back… Come back… Come back… Back…
After lunch – and you will be glad, I’m convinced, to know that the rain lifted enough to keep our explorer dry during his race back to the Pharmacy building – the class reformed and did their work devotedly. Bonnie still lectured the young girls and reminded everyone of her calling, Andy still made weak jokes and referenced his garage band with painful regularity, Beck still mumbled through his teeth to (nearly) universal approval, and Bob – simple, dull Bob – smiled like a goon and answered questions he hadn’t heard with meaningless tangents. When the time came, the bored man happily returned to his hostel, did his homework, and went to sleep after a quick meal of kimchi and ramen. He would dream of leaving the country his parents naively adored, the ground that his grandfather had tilled and harvested, the earth where his great-grandfather’s bones had been digested after their rotten coffin had succumbed to time.