When the class ended, Devin approached her for his Rubik's Cube. She handed it to him. “I hope you don't resent me for taking it. I have to take precautions. If you're really a whiz like your neighbor claims, I'd like to see you in competition some time.” She handed it to him. “Don't forget about Book Swap night at Lit Club.”
“I haven't forgotten.”
“Speaking of clubs,” she said. “Weren't you pledging for Phi Delta Nu?” Grace thought of Zach and his fraternity pin.
Devin's face got taut and tense at the question, angry even. Grace almost felt afraid of him. After a moment, he seemed to make an attempt to soften his look, but it wasn't quite working. “I decided Phi Delta Nu wasn't for me, Ms. Darby. I'm more of a Lit Club guy.”
This seemed true enough, but there seemed to be more to the story.
Grace returned to Beatnik Beans for lunch, ordering a tomato soup and half a ciabatta sandwich with sun dried tomatoes and fresh mozzarella. She settled down in her corner, and a short while later, Dr. Ian O'Malley, a gray-haired colleague in her department, came by her table.
“Grace?” he said. “May I join you or are you up to your nose in the Brownings.”
She smiled. “I'm always up to my nose in some book, but I wouldn't mind company.”
He sat down with his food tray. “And if you get tired of reading books, you can read the walls.” He turned to the wall beside them. “Look at this one, a haiku ...”
She looked at it too.
“Floating down the stream,
A single leaf wends its way,
Lonely yet part of the whole.”
“Deep or pretentious?” he asked her, then adding, “I'm not a fan of haiku.”
“It's not awful,” said Grace, wiping tomato soup from her mouth. “Not like this one. 'The cow went moo moo, the train went choo choo ...'” She shook her head and rolled her eyes.
“That's not a poet,” said O'Malley. “That's someone making fun of a poet.”
“I'd get poetry just as good from a See 'n Say toy,” said Grace. “And what about this one?” She pointed to the wall. “Someone's trying to out-Cummings Cummings.”
“What poet doesn't try to out-Cummings Cummings?”
“No punctuation, no capitals ...” Grace paused. “It's not even words. It's just gobbledygook.” She pointed to the writing on the wall.
“It's like Dr. Seuss,” said O'Malley.
“Or like Lewis Carroll's 'The Jabberwocky,' without the sensible words in between,” said Grace. “'Twas brilling and the slithy toves, did gyre and gimble in the wabe, All mimsy were the borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe.” She sipped her coffee. “I can see 'dooslebatts' being something like 'mome raths.'”
“Yes,” said O'Malley, nodding. “And just exactly what are 'mome raths?'”
Grace nearly spat out her coffee, laughing, “Fantasy creatures.” She looked at the wall again, pointing to the mysterious words. “Or … perhaps they're anagrams.” She stared at it for a time. “Mene mene tekel upharsin.”
“Daniel 5,” said O'Malley, citing the passage of the Old Testament where a disembodied finger wrote those mysterious words on King Belshazzar's wall. Now, we just need a Daniel to interpret the writing on the wall,” said Grace.
She pulled out her leather-bound journal and copied the odd words into it.
“Is this for discussion at your poetry class?” O'Malley asked her.
“No,” said Grace. “I like anagrams.”
When her classes ended for the day, Grace drove to the Walmart to pick up some dogfood for Shelley, her Corgi. Wandering up and down the aisles with her cart, she came across her student Zach and remembered about Devin and Phi Delta Nu. She didn't set out meaning to be an interfering professor, but she cared about her students.
Zach had his back to her, staring into the shelves at a wall full of duct tape.
“Zach, I'm just wondering if you know my student, Devin Reynolds.”
“Devin Reynolds? He's my cousin.”
“Your cousin? Really?” She wasn't aware of this before. The two boys seemed so opposite. Zach Olsen was confident, blond and athletic. Devin was dark-haired, slight and bookish. “You couldn't use your influence to help Devin get in Phi Delta Nu?”
Zach looked uncomfortable. He seemed to be shrinking in front of her. “Devin … ” Zach looked away from her and into the shelves before looking back at her. “Devin was hurt in the process of pledging.”
“Yes, I know,” said Grace. “You mean they rejected him. He was hurt emotionally.”
“No.” He stared back at the shelves.
“They made him drink too much?”
“No,” said Zach. “ … probably, but that's not what I meant.” He seemed to be shrinking into himself again, an odd thing for this confident boy. Strange lines broke out on his face, and his head and shoulders hunched. He looked at her, hesitating. “Devin was … he was assaulted.”
“With the fraternity paddle? Do they do that still?”
Zach stood silent.
“Some sort of criminal assault?”
Zach tilted his head to one side and exhaled. “Ms. Darby … Look, I can't tell you. You're a lady.”
Grace wondered what being a lady had to do with what he could or could not say when suddenly she understood. She turned white. “Oh,” she said. “Oh. That kind of assault.”
“I brought him to the emergency room – I'm the only one with a car – but that's all I'm going to say about that. I shouldn't have said what I did, only … only you seem to care.”
“I do,” said Grace. “I do care.” She reached up and tapped the hunched shoulder. She thought she ought to encourage reporting the incident to the police, but it was obviously a touchy issue, and she felt she had interfered enough for one session.
Zach finally chose a roll of duct tape and put it into his cart, circling the neck of a Boylan's root beer in a six pack. Grace noticed they were old-fashioned glass bottles. She was glad he was buying root beer and not vodka. The only other items in his cart were some Pennzoil and some Vidal Sassoon hairspray. They walked in silence to the checkout.
As she drove home to her apartment, Grace alternated between feelings of compassion and furious feelings that appealed to her sense of justice. When she arrived home, she flopped on her sofa and scooped up Shelley beside her. “Thank God for you, Shelley. Charles Schultz was right. Happiness is a warm puppy.”
To be Continued …
© 2016 Susan Joy Clark